ZELIENOPLE — Amy Barkley and Linda Gass sat on a bench Monday in Community Park, observing the freshly excavated plot of land soon to house a skateboard and BMX park.
Though the muddy rectangle doesn't look like much now, the two looked ahead to when the project nearly a decade in the making is finished.
“My hope is that it just helps build the community,” Barkley said. “It's not for us. It's never been about that. I want to come back here in two years and see a bunch of new kids that we don't know skating.”
Barkley, Gass and more than 100 members of the community came together Monday for the official groundbreaking of the park that began as a senior project for Gass' son, Trevor Barkley. He even worked on plans for the park that fateful day in 2010 before leaving home for a meeting at the Zelienople Volunteer Fire Department. On Jan. 27th of that year, the vehicle carrying him and two friends — Sam Bucci and Elijah Lunsford — slid off the road and plunged into a lake, killing all three students.
Since then, Gass, Barkley and a team of dozens worked to bring the Seneca Valley student's idea to life. The driving force behind the project was Trevor's father and Amy's husband, Jeff Barkley, who attended countless meetings and worked to secure a $200,000 grant from the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as well as $10,000 from the Tony Hawk Foundation.
The remaining funds were raised through community donations and the popular Lenten fish fries, with the project creeping toward its nearly $650,000 goal.
Organizers were thrown an unfortunate challenge in November when Jeff Barkley passed away. As she dealt with the overwhelming emotion of the tragedy, Amy Barkley stepped up to take over the project and see it through.
“It was really hard after Jeff passed away and we didn't know what we were going to end up doing, how we were going to keep moving forward,” Gass said.
Amy Barkley found her husband's briefcase containing the documents for the park. She spent her nights familiarizing herself with them and learning as much as she could, which she coupled with the bits and pieces she picked up from him over the years.
“It wasn't hard to do because Jeff had gotten us to the point where we needed to be,” she said. “It's just hard on a personal level.”
Zelienople Borough Council approved a construction contract last month with Grindline to complete the work. Organizers said Monday they remain about $40,000 short of the ultimate goal, but believe one more round of fish dinners should help hit the mark. Both Gass and Barkley said support from the community has been indescribable, with local businesses donating material and money without question.
“When the kids passed away it didn't just happen to us, it happened to the community, so its really been all about the community,” Amy Barkley said, adding that organizers are extremely proud to be nearly fully funded. “It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
The project also created its own community for those who experienced their own loss.
Les and Barbara Gutzwiller of Harmony were in attendance Monday in memory of their son, Geoff. As someone who loved “the thrill” of life, he spent his time rafting, rock climbing and skateboarding.
In 2006, Geoff Gutzwiller committed suicide, leaving a hole in his parent's lives. A fund was started to create a park in his memory, which the Gutzwillers pledged toward the skatepark upon learning about the project. They've been involved ever since.
Les Gutzwiller prays the park provides a safe place for the kids who use it. He also said the skatepark honors the memory of four wonderful young men who had so much to offer.
“Now we're seeing the results of their dream,” he said as he held a shovel Monday, joined by Barkley, Gass and other family members. “We certainly miss those boys — we always will. There's a big hole in our hearts. But on the other hand, they're leaving a legacy for boys and girls coming along that will last a long, long time.”
Amy Barkley and Gass said they hope to see the park bring children, teenagers and adults together to form their own skateboard community in which they teach and share knowledge. Gass said that sense of community was her son's favorite part of skateboarding.
“Trevor loved teaching the little kids,” she said, adding the park will have areas for every level of expertise. “I'm hoping to see young kids and old kids develop that closeness.”
The DCNR grant carries a 2020 deadline to finish the work, and Barkley said a more definitive timeline will be ironed out in the coming weeks.