Jerry Burrell Park in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood was filled with children playing and other cheerful people Saturday afternoon, and not just because the weather made outdoors the go-to place to be.
The community group All of Us and Artis Southern Cuisine Steakhouse together marked the first day of the Labor Day weekend — and the next-to-last weekend before school starts with a “Back to School Cookout & Community Family First Day.”
Grilled chicken and other food was donated by Artis, there was a bounce castle, and a couple of barbers donated free back-to-school haircuts — all in the name of increasing a sense of community, organizers said.
“Everything is donated,” said Jadel Whitfield, who owns Artis, which opened at 1363 Lower Broadway in early March, just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the restaurant business. Saturday afternoon, he was overseeing preparation in a park pavilion.
“I feel like as an African-American minority who owns a business, I want to lead by example,” Whitfield said.
Despite the unavoidable impact of the pandemic on his business, Whitfield said he has donated meals to first-responders, police, hospital workers and nursing homes. “That has been part of my objective,” he said.
Ronald Abraham of Schenectady was one of the barbers donating children’s haircuts at an improvised work station in the shade near the main pavilion. He’s been cutting hair in the area for more than 30 years, and acknowledged a free back-to-school haircut will be a relief to parents stressed about the disruptions the pandemic has caused, including uncertainty about school.
“It helps out a lot of parents,” he said.
All of Us, which was formed earlier this year and has drawn the most publicity for its protests against police brutality and calls for local police reform, wants events like this to build the sense of community, said Makayla Foster, an All of Us organizer.
“We intend to have community events that create a bigger sense of community, along with supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,” Foster said. Increasing the sense of community makes it easier to stand up against systemic racism, she said, while also emphasizing that the sense of community extends beyond race.
“We stand 150 percent behind Black Lives Matter, but this is a very diverse community,” Foster said.
“We’re trying to build grassroots integrity back into the community. There is no race; we’re all one community,” said Sistah Padin, another All of Us community activist, who was collecting signatures for demands for police reform.
But while adults may have been thinking about abstract concepts like community, the kids just wanted to play. Teens were shooting hoops, while younger children tumbled around on playground equipment and took advantage of the bounce castle — with a limit of four people inside at one time, a mask requirement, and liberal applications of Lysol when no one was inside.
Michael Zahner from Rotterdam Junction watched his 3½-year-old special needs son, Matthew, play in the bounce castle. In non-pandemic times, the younger Zahner attends a local Head Start program.
“It’s good to have him interact with other kids, especially since he’s been away from other kids for so long,” Zahner said.
The Schenectady Fire Department also sent a ladder truck to the park, to appeal to kids large and small.
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086,