Before her mission began six months ago, Sister Jessica Villanueva had never poured cement or spread mulch on a playground.
But on the mission field, there’s always a first time for everything.
In Villanueva’s first opportunity to help build a community playground, she was joined by a handful of current and former basketball stars, several hundred volunteers and about two dozen missionaries from the Houston Texas Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We’re doing what we need to be doing, serving one another,” said Villanueva, a North Carolina native who’s been on her mission for about six months. “That’s what our Heavenly Father wants.”
The missionaries joined NBA stars including Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and Dwight Howard in building a playground in Houston’s historic 5th Ward community, one of several service events held during the week of the NBA All Star game scheduled for Sunday February 17th at 7 pm in Houston. More than 1,500 NBA players and others affiliated with the league spread across Houston to complete three service projects.
About 200 people, including the players, missionaries, area volunteers and students from Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M University worked most of the day laying foundation, installing monkey bars and landscaping the playground at the intersection of Benson and Curtis Streets about two miles Northeast of downtown Houston. The installation was coordinated by the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Adidas and KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization that helps communities build playgrounds. The massive project consumed the entire day and into the evening.
Former Houston Rockets Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo were on hand to help, and Mutombo was gracious enough to take a picture with Elder Robert Wilstead over whom he towered by more than a foot.
“I’m very pleased to see people that came from different walks of life,” Mutombo said. “Especially in our neighborhoods, where our kids are trying to find peace of mind after school where they can have a place to come with their parents.”
“I love being here and serving the Lord,” said Elder Jose Torres, a native of Monterrey, Mexico who’s been on his mission for 10 months. “We’re here trying to help the community, so we can see the value in one another and get to know each other.”
Kobe Bryant brought his daughter, Natalia to the event, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan brought his wife and children as well.
“I was one of those young boys who it was hard for me to sit still all day,” Duncan told Fox 26 News of Houston. “If I had a chance to burn off some steam, then I could go concentrate.”
John King, chief national correspondent for cable news channel CNN, said the missionaries and other volunteers would be able to leave a legacy behind in Houston with the playground.
“Look at all these smiling faces, people from all over the country who are going to leave a bit of a legacy here,” King said. “They’ll drive here in five years or 10 years and there’ll be some kids playing in a park, whereas yesterday they didn’t have one….And what greater gift can you do than give kids a chance to play and laugh.”