CHECOTAH — Giving the aerosol can a few shakes, Carrie Underwood carefully began to paint a bright white outline around a map of the United States and Canada.
Pausing occasionally to ensure she connected all the dots for the map just right, the country music superstar was clearly right at home.
Underwood, 28, returned to her hometown Friday to join about 200 local volunteers and organizers from KaBOOM! to build a new playground at Marshall Elementary School.
The chart-topping singer-songwriter, who attended the school as a child, funded the project through her Checotah Animal, Town, and School Foundation, or C.A.T.S. Foundation for short.
“Play is really important. You know, you hear every single day it seems on the news about ... childhood obesity numbers … and this is something that can affect their lives forever. You know, get 'em young,” said Underwood, who blended in with the other volunteers in her C.A.T.S. T-shirt, rolled-up jeans, running shoes, pinned-up hair and oversized sunglasses.
“Kids want to play; they want to go outside; they want to burn off that energy. They'll be better in school if they've gone out at recess and been able to get it all out of their system. They sleep better. It's just better all around.”
The project marked her foundation's first partnership with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving play for America's children. The organization's mission is to create safe and fun play spaces through the participation and leadership of communities, with the ultimate goal of providing an outdoor place to play within walking distance of every child in America.
“It's a custom-designed, one-of-a-kind playground,” said KaBOOM! project manager Katie Morgan, who first flew from San Francisco to Oklahoma six weeks ago to visit the school.
The schoolchildren drew and talked about their ideas for a dream playground, which were used to devise three different designs. The youngsters voted on their favorite, choosing a tree house theme with a tall green spiral slide, trunklike climbing area and whimsical treetop decorations.
The volunteers swarming the schoolyard assembled the play set, moved and raked into place 140 cubic yards of mulch and mixed 10,000 pounds of cement by hand, Morgan said. Underwood said she was astounded that they were able to install the new playground in just one day.
“You see the schedule, and you're like, ‘Yeah, right, we're not gonna build an entire playground from 8:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Not gonna happen.' But it totally did. We had time to spare,” she said. “It's been amazing.”
In the past 15 years, KaBOOM! has built more than 2,000 playgrounds across the country, Morgan said, and the organization has the process down to a science.
She'll make more stops in state
Along with installing the playground, Underwood and the other volunteers rebuilt the raised beds and made other improvements to the community garden, crafted decorative letters for the fence, put in a running path, built trash can holders and painted the U.S. and world maps.
Wearing a bright yellow button with the slogan “I earned this backache,” the “American Idol” winner said she did a little bit of everything except mixing cement on the project.
“I painted, I mulched, I shoveled,” she said, examining the paint under her fingernails. “My legs hurt. I'm not gonna lie. When this says, ‘I earned this backache,' it's not lying. I'm probably gonna have one.”
Her hometown won't be her last stop of Underwood's weekend visit to Oklahoma. On Saturday, she will visit Northeastern State University, where she will ride in the homecoming parade, attend the football game and receive a distinguished alumnus honor during halftime.
“‘I'm gonna feel so stinkin' old. I just know I am. It doesn't feel like college is that far away, but I guess it was,” she said. “I haven't been back to Tahlequah in a while, so I'm excited.”
She also expressed excitement about upcoming projects she is considering for her C.A.T.S. Foundation, which previously has donated more than $100,000 in musical instruments to the school band program and renovated the local animal shelter, where she adopted her dachshund mix, Penny.
“You are loved a whole bunch,” Underwood told the students after the playground was completed. “There was a lot of sweat going on today, and there's gonna be a lot of sore backs here tomorrow, and it's all because everybody out here loves you guys so much.”