Salvation Army supporter in Jacksonville, Florida brightens lives

By: Antoinette Vitale

Richard Stetina has fond memories of going to parks as a child. He still can recall every detail of the ones that are most special to him. When he took a tour of The Salvation Army’s Towers Center of Hope and the Red Shield Lodge shelter for women and families, the playground made an impression on him – but not for the right reasons.

It was old, in disrepair and clearly in need of some love. After he went home, the playground kept coming up in his mind. Finally, he decided that he needed to do something about it.

“I went home, and I guess it was two or three days before I started thinking about it again,” Stetina said. “And I thought, you know, I could do something that would be better. I made my proposal, it was accepted, and here we are today.”

Stetina could have just written a check and felt good about the difference he made. But he isn’t that kind of fellow. He researched the best playgrounds and the best building materials and imagined what would provide the best playground experience for the children, drawing from his own happy memories. When the time came to tear out the old playground and build the new, Stetina put in hours of his own sweat equity.

The result of his labor of love is incredible. Hope Park is now a vibrant and engaging playground of the highest quality. The children who stay at the Red Shield Lodge now bound out of the doors and play with abandon on a playground created with an enormous level of care. Stetina designed the entire experience of the playground with intention.

“What I tried to do here was to incorporate some of the things that I remember from the days that I visited parks,” he said. “We’ve incorporated a mural on the perimeter wall which has some phrases and inspirational words that hopefully the children and parents can take with them. Maybe it will be inspirational enough that it will change their lives a little bit.”

Hope Park is not the only thing Stetina has created that will change the lives of shelter residents and other Salvation Army clients in the Jacksonville area. He is also providing funding through his two endowments to enable veterans and other adult clients to continue their education or job skills training so they can build a better life. Stetina’s sustaining gifts support The Salvation Army’s local Pathway of Hope program that offers participants the opportunity to break the cycle of generational poverty. The overarching goal of the program is to provide participants the order to become more stable and self-sufficient. In addition to creating Hope Park, Stetina has also created a third endowment to provide for the future maintenance of the park, ensuring its preservation.

At the center of the Hope Park project for Stetina, from the start, was the children.

“Really, the kids here are the innocent victims of their particular situation,” he said. “I thought if I could turn a frown into a smile, that would be an achievement. Who knows, maybe they’ll be brought back someday having remembered the good times that they had here and want to be a part of this organization in some fashion. You never know where things like this will lead.”

Antoinette Vitale is the community relations and special events coordinator for the Northeast Florida Area Command.