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Brainchild is for kids who love to compete

By Mary Barrett Daily Planet correspondent
Tuesday August 21, 2001

Don Arreola Burl’s ingenuity created Playground Rats, a competitive summer sports program that’s part of the Berkeley-Albany YMCA offerings.  

The six-week sport medley, primarily of baseball and basketball, was happily conceived several years ago. Burl’s idea was to replicate what he’d enjoyed as a kid, taking high energy out to the playground and playing all day long, with the least amount of interruption or direct supervision from the adults as possible. Playground Rats has been so successful that parents hang out on the side lines while their kids, reluctant to go home for dinner, finish “just one more” game. 

The program is at Hillside School off Cedar Street and Euclid, fairy tale like in the morning fog with towering redwoods and the smell of what could be the Sierra. Kids start playing informally as they arrive and then the organized games of the morning begin, with teams competing in a series of baseball and basketball “house” games. Stats are kept on each child and posted. A new child might be chagrined to see his batting average is low but, Burl reports, the same kid rejoices seeing his stats improve as the weeks progress. Playground Rats is billed as a program for kids who love to compete, however Don Burl and Carol Wiegel, his work partner at Hillside, have kept the emphasis away from the ‘cut throat’ toward the exhilaration of competing. The athletes learn to be team leaders and followers, they learn rules and strategies, and they fully enjoy themselves in an extremely challenging, yet safe, environment.  

Playground Rats has gone through a variety of combinations and permutations since its conception. One year girls had a special two week period of sports with Don while the boys cooked after shopping in north Berkeley with Carol. But now the boys and girls enjoy the full six weeks together and all the counselors-in-training are Rats alumni. 

Parents and kids alike idolize Don Burl. He is a tall, unassuming man in his early forties with an even temperament. He exudes a steadiness that is magnetic and he, unequivocally, loves sports. Not much rattles Don or his vision; one would assume he was always full of confidence. But he attributes his success to his grandmother, Louise Nelson, his wife, Michele Arreola Burl, his former boss at the “Y,” Catherine Jamison and to his sixth grade teacher, Steven Phelps. 

Born in San Francisco, Donald Burl is the oldest of four children. He was raised primarily by his grandparents, and it was his grandmother who got him interested in sports. She taught him to ride a bike in Golden Gate Park by jumping on the bike, (she was in her early 80s), riding straight into a sprinkler system and falling off, then telling him to jump on. She was a Giant’s fan and listened to the games on the radio. She bought him his first bat and glove and told him to “go out there and play”. 

In the late ’60s, there was a Coca Cola promotion that involved collecting and redeeming bottle caps, with baseball players’ faces on them, for sports equipment. Burl’s grandmother rigged up magnets on a string and she and Donald went around town fishing bottle caps out of Coke machine pockets. When they went to redeem them, they took them to Columbia Park Boy’s Club. They were impressed to see boys there involved in a sports bonanza with a gym, a playfield, a game room and leagues. When his grandmother discovered for $1 Donald could go also, all day every day of the year, and back again after dinner, she enrolled him on the spot. His experience with the Boys’ Club was the prototype for Playground Rats. 

For middle school, Burl chose to go to Sacred Heart School in the Filmore because they had competitive sports. His sixth grade teacher, Steve Phelps, taught him that he could do things he hadn’t done before. Though he wanted to play in the outfield, like his favorite Giant, Willie Mays, Don was a chunky kid with no speed. During baseball season, Phelps strapped catcher’s leg protectors to Don’s legs, as he told him, “You can do this, this is not hard.” Don became an adept catcher. Phelps also taught him to hold a basketball and to shoot. He was a good jumper, already 6 feet tall. He held the center, ‘five-spot’ position, throughout his years in basketball.  

Phelps loaded all the kids into his car and made sure they got to all the games and had the equipment they needed. He kept track of his athletes as they grew up, giving them continued support and encouragement. Burl played basketball through his high school years at Sacred Heart on Van Ness. At one point, in the early ’70s, a Black Student Union tried to organize the black athletes – all the athletes were black in a predominately white school – to protest inequalities by giving up sports to make a point. Don realized he couldn’t do that, he wanted desperately to keep playing. He was willing to make a point but not by keeping himself from competing. 

The big mistake in those years, Burl says, was going to a two-year instead of a four- year college. He played ball for two years at City College, but when it was time to transition to San Francisco State, it was more than he was able to do. He dropped out of school and began full-time work in a variety of jobs. 

Eventually he went back to school and in 1984 Catherine Jamison hired him at the Berkeley-Albany YMCA. Jamison gave him ample responsibility and the support needed to develop basketball leagues, including one for girls, at the Albany Y. When he proposed the Playground Rat idea 11 years ago, she gave him the go ahead. It is a very different program from the typical child care programs of the Y and it took awhile for everyone to understand that the adults teach the games, and modifications of games, and the kids play them. There is no overbearing pressure from any adult during the games. The kids come as close as they can to having a sand lot “neighborhood” experience on this urban asphalt. 

Throughout the school year, Burl works for the Berkeley Unified School District running sports programs at John Muir and Washington schools and at Berkwood Hedge, a private school. Recently Burl has been an integral part of the Little Giants program promoting baseball with youth throughout the Bay Area. 

He and his wife Michele Arreola, formerly a Program director at the Y, have two young children, Jonah and Anjuli, and Don’s sons from a first marriage, Shaun and Ryan, are part of their family mix. Shaun plays basketball for Berkeley High and Ryan is a football natural.  

Despite the fact that work days are long, 10 to 12 hours, Don Burl looks forward to each summer when he can bring to Berkeley’s youth the gift of unending games.