MERIDEN — Faith and Corey Gordon and their cousin Harmony Echevarria squealed joyfully under the jets of water at Lions Club Water Park under the wary eye of Dymand Loper.
The 24-year-old Loper seemed at times to be drifting. She sat in a lawn chair and sipped at a can of ginger ale, her eyes occasionally clouding in thought, but her gaze never strayed too far, or for too long, from her three charges as they splashed and cavorted among a dozen other kids at two of the park’s water stations on Tuesday.
With the temperatures hovering at about 84 degrees, the sun intermittently peeking from heavy clouds and a steady, gentle breeze blowing, the heat was steady but not oppressive, so the water park, also known as the splash pad, wasn’t all that crowded for a summer day. Since opening in City Park last Friday, the park has averaged about 60 visitors a weekday and 90 a day on its first weekend. City Parks and Recreation Director Christian Bourdon expects as many as 200 visitors a day to the Park Avenue facility when temperatures break beyond 90 degrees.
To Loper, the water park is a multi-generational treat for the neighborhood. She remembers enjoying the facility when she was a 12-year-old living on Prescott Street, a typical occurrence for the park’s caretaker and recreation department attendant, Eva Kim Marquez.
“I have had kids here who have had kids and those kids have come here,” Marquez said. She has been the park’s caretaker for 12 years. The park was created by the city with donations and labor from the Meriden Lions Club in the 1990s.
“This is something special for the kids,” said Loper, who moved to Meriden from Bridgeport with her family when she was 9. “They love it here.”
But their summer home away from home struggles with the problems that beset much of the rest of Meriden. Vandalism forced the replacement of all of the parks water sprayers since last summer, and the door to Marquez’s small storage space and office has a new lock because four neighborhood teens tried to break into it last week, she said.
“I don’t understand it at all,” Lormara Guerrero, a 28-year-old mom who has lived on Park Avenue for 18 years, said of the vandalism. “Everybody around here knows that this is a family place.”
They play under watchful eyes
The opening of the park is an annual event that marks the start of summer and its pleasures in Meriden. Coronavirus shut it down last summer, so that made its reopening all the sweeter, said Cabria Cummings, who was at the park with her son Jahkai.
“I was surprised to see it open,” Cummings said.
To the kids, the splash pad is more than a chance to cool off. The water provides a chance to play, and all play involves imagination. Several boys enjoyed pulling the fronts of their shirts over their foreheads and standing under the water, giggling as they made faces at one another. Four-year-old Jahkai hovered close to his mother, saying he wasn’t ready to get sprayed. Some kids just stood there, enjoying the cool water.
Bad behavior, what little there was of it, was punished swiftly.
Pet names for every station
Marquez has other rules that she follows. She accepts donations from civic groups and individuals of goods and snacks that the neighborhood kids can use, but no money. No peanut butter snacks are accepted to prevent allergic reactions. No bubble gum, either — it can stick to the pavement.
She also tries to avoid running all of the stations simultaneously, as that causes too steep a drop in water pressure. Tuesday, she ran two stations at a time, changing them every 20 or 30 minutes or so. Marquez also hands out donated candy and goods at regular intervals.
Marquez said that the volunteers recently donated new stations after vandals jumped the fence and damaged the water sprinklers about a year ago. She and Bourdon credited the Lions Club with helping replace the sprinklers and installing new paving stones and three new benches around the edge of the pad.
She has names for each of the stations. One is called the candy cane because it is a straight pole with a curve at one end. The candle is a straight pole that shoots water out the top, and the umbrella looks like a mushroom that gets water from its outer edges. The shower massage offers pulsing bursts of water.
The recent renovation of the water park has stirred Bourdon’s ambitions to place more splash pads at other city parks, he said. He hopes to get one installed at Hubbard Park as a complement to the city pool there within the next two or three years and is starting to search for funding sources.
Finding workers as dedicated as Marquez might be difficult. She works the splash pad seven days a week, and takes off only three to five days during the summer, he said. Marquez plans to have a Fourth of July picnic this summer and is accepting donations of appropriate food or goods for it now, she said.
Bourdon hopes that the park will remain busy until the end of the season.
“Generally we try to keep it open from the last day of school right up to the first day of school in the fall,” he said.