Not all problems are hard to solve. In Detroit, one of the most formidable barriers to play is overgrown grass.
Enter Tom Nardone (pictured right), a do-gooder but no goodie-goodie. Founder and Gang Leader of the Detroit Mower Gang, Tom and his motley crew of “renegade landscapers” are taking action. Rather than wring their hands, they realized that they have the tools they need—namely, mowers, trimmers, lawn tractors, and muscles—to transform Detroit’s deteriorating parks.
After all, no one wants to visit a playground if they have to wade through grass to get to the swings. An abandoned playground becomes vulnerable to vandalism and crime, launching a vicious cycle that can change the entire character of a neighborhood.
Tom, a father of three, started the Mower Gang in 2010, shortly after Mayor Dave Bing proposed closing 77 city parks, leaving thousands of kids without a place to play. At the time, Tom was coaching one of his son’s soccer teams, but he wanted to give more back to the community. “I have to do something that fits me,” he thought.
He started out small. He bought a used lawn tractor for $250 and, he says, “I would go out to parks and I would mow under the swing sets. I mean, this [was] not rocket science… I would just go out there and spend an afternoon, I wouldn’t schedule it… I’d just have two hours free from work, throw the thing in the back of the truck, go, come back, and go back to work. It was good.”
When he found an overgrown velodrome (a bicycle racing track, pictured below at left) at Dorais Playground, he wanted to restore it, but he knew he needed help. He created a Facebook page and started inviting people to show up. “I thought to myself if one person, if one guy shows up to this thing, it would be great,” says Tom. Aside from his brother and coworker, “one guy showed up. Guess what his name was? His name was Guy! I wanted one guy, I got a Guy.”
From its humble beginnings, the Mower Gang has steadily grown—and its work doesn’t stop at mowing. The gang meets every other week at a different park, usually attracting about 20 volunteers. In 2011, they held a “road rally,” which included a scavenger hunt to collect information about 90 of Detroit’s parks and determine areas of need. Realizing that many playgrounds in Detroit had swing sets, but no swings, the Mower Gang began a project on Kickstarter to replace 40 of the city’s 200+ missing swings. They aimed to raise a modest $800 and ended up with $3,020. The Gang also received a Let’s Play Maintenance grant from KaBOOM! to help purchase new playground surfacing.
This past Memorial Day weekend, 70 weed-whacking, grass-hacking volunteers gathered to tackle 12 parks in 24 hours as part of the first annual Mowtown Mowdown. “People love a good deed and nobody spends the night in a Detroit park. We were just crazy enough to do both,” Tom says.
Even though Tom has attracted major media attention for his work, including two appearances on the Conan show, he remains humble about his work. He might just be a guy with a lawn mower, he says, but “something is greater than nothing.”
And that something can mean quite a lot for a child. "The park is one of the bright moments in childhood," Mower Gang member Andy Didorosi says. "You learn there, you play there, that’s your jam. And if your park is dangerous, overgrown or unusable, well ..."
Tom says, “What I get out of it is every time we do the swing sets, every time we do the play places, there’s always kids that come out. It never fails that you see the result right away.”
Photos via the Detroit Mower Gang's Facebook page.
Playgrounds give kids a chance to move their bodies, but the opportunities afforded by a single playground extend beyond physical activity. Kids also get more chances to challenge themselves, exercise their imaginations, and interact with other children and families. A new study conducted by Deborah Puntenney, Ph.D. at Northwestern University, in conjunction with KaBOOM! and Health Care Service Corporation, confirms our motto: “It starts with a playground.”
By the end of 2013, Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC) and its Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas will have built 39 playgrounds through a partnership with KaBOOM!. The company's support for KaBOOM! is part of its Healthy Kids, Healthy Families program, a three-year initiative designed to improve the health and wellness of at least one million children through community investments.
The study, conducted in 9 cities in 2011, used a learning community model to examine how being part of the KaBOOM! playground building process affects attitudes about the health promotion impact of physical activity and play, and the potential ripple effects associated with the community building aspects of the projects.
Photos from KaBOOM! and Blue Cross and Blue Shield playground builds in Tulsa, OK (upper left), Chicago, IL (upper right), Rio Rancho, NM (bottom left), and Marshall, TX (bottom right).
Here, KaBOOM! says thank you to HCSC for its commitment to bringing play to children in need:
Every day, we work to give kids in need a space where they can make lasting memories and lifetime friends. In doing so, we make our own friends and memories—with plenty of laughter along the way.
It is always gratifying to invest time and sweat into a project, and to see it through to fruition. But when when we look back, it's the moments we remember, moments when we made a new connection, or something was said that moved us or made us laugh.
Here are our 12 best moments of 2012. What were your best moments on the playground?
When disaster strikes, one of the most important things we can do for our children is give them time and space to play. In August 2012, KaBOOM! joined forces with the Kansas City Chiefs to build a playground in Joplin, Missouri, a community still reeling from the effects of the tornado that devastated the area 16 months prior.
When CJ Huff (above left), the Superintendent of Joplin Schools, recently visited the KaBOOM! headquarters, he talked to us about the many positive effects the playground had brought to the surrounding community. While kids’ talk about suicide had dramatically increased following the tornado, after the playground build, talk of suicide decreased. It’s all too easy to forget that kids bear the stress of their families: lost jobs, lost homes, lost lives. Getting outside and having the opportunity to run, laugh, and play is essential.
"Playgrounds are a critical component to the infrastructure in any community," CJ Huff said. "We also found playgrounds were really a place of reunification in the aftermath of the tornado and a meeting place for children who hadn’t seen each other since the storm."
In Elgin, Ill., a handful of volunteers were hard at work readying a site where we planned to build a playground the following day. One helper, local police Commander Glenn Theirault, ventured across the street to an abandoned house in hopes of finding an electrical source.
To Glenn’s surprise, he found that an 85-year-old woman named Dorothy lived there. The inside of her house was immaculate, but Dorothy had difficulty moving around and could no longer maintain the outside. She had tried to find help, but nothing came through. As they were talking, Glenn fell right through the rotted front porch!
Glenn came back on the playground build day with a crew of volunteers who built Dorothy a new front and back porch, cut her grass, cleared fallen trees, removed an old pool and trampoline, cleaned the gutters, painted the garage, and planted new landscaping. They unearthed Dorothy’s like-new riding lawnmower that she turned around and gave to a 16-year-old neighbor who is trying to start a lawn-mowing business. In return, he promised to keep her grass cut.
“I love to sit on my front porch and watch and hear the kids play at the park,” says Dorothy, who is incredibly grateful for everybody’s help. “With the new playground it is so colorful now!”
In November, our CEO and Founder Darell Hammond stepped down for a day so that the winners of our Little Artists contest, four-year-old Jake Bannister and six-year-old Helen Bartman, could assume the post. Their busy schedule included signing letters to our Board, running an all-staff meeting, testing out our Imagination Playground™ equipment, and leading a Senior Team huddle at our local playground.
Though Jake was initially a bit shy and overwhelmed, he and Helen became close colleagues after they had a chance to play. The above photo shows the two CEOs walking back from the playground as they strategize about effective kazoo-playing techniques. The moment was a moving testament to the power of play, reminding KaBOOM! staff of the importance of what we do.
Not everyone believes in the power of a playground—but some can be convinced. That’s what Jason Ellis learned when we partnered with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), The Washington Capitals Charities, and So Kids Can to build a playground in Alexandria, Va. Jason, who works at ARHA, found himself challenged by affluent neighbors who did not appreciate his community, much less the thought of a new playground there. Finally, one particularly vocal neighbor decided to meet with Jason and talk through his vision and his work with KaBOOM!. By the end of the meeting, she not only apologized for being unable to volunteer at the playground build, but she also handed Jason a check for $500!
Maybe only fools fall in love, but sometimes those fools are hardworking, mulch-shoveling volunteers. Kimmy Miller and Chris Ferry first met two years ago while volunteering at a playground build in Braddock, PA.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman has since spoken at length about the impact of the playground in his town, which he refers to as the "Grand Central Station of Kidville." He notes that the community has taken an active role in not only maintaining the but also expanding the playground since its initial construction. That's why we KaBOOM! say, “It starts with a playground.” But now we’ll have to add marriage to our list of the many positive ripple effects a playground can set in motion. When we learned that Kimmy and Chris got engaged in December, we made sure to send some KaBOOM!-themed engagement presents their way. Rumor has it they will be wed on the playground.
In April, Nesbit Elementary School made KaBOOM! history by hosting the most volunteers ever on site for a single playground build, thanks to the generous sponsorship of DIRECTV. Over the course of one day, 840 volunteers hauled 530 cubic yards of engineered wood fiber and mixed over 80,000 pounds of concrete for the student-designed inclusive 10,000 square-foot playground.
During an amazing lunchtime performance by Nesbit students, Principal Clayborn Knight went on to make KaBOOM! history a second time by becoming the first principal to rap his gratitude for the new playground:
About eight months later, we were surprised yet again when we received 50 thank you cards (pictured above) that the kids worked on as part of a continued service learning project.
Not everyone welcomes teens at playgrounds—in fact, some go so far as to ban them. But downtown St. Louis neighbors Matt O’Leary and Kelly Kelsey were delighted when 40 teens arrived unexpectedly at the site of a future playground, asking how they could help.
Matt and Kelly had long wished that someone would do something about Lucas Park, which for years was littered with needles and trash, and known for drinking, drug use, and other unruly behavior. Meanwhile, the 350 children under age six who lived nearby had no place to play.
Eventually they got sick of waiting. Forming a nonprofit called Friends of Lucas Park, they applied for, and received, a KaBOOM! Let’s Play construction grant. They rallied their community to raise additional funds, and using our tools on Our Dream Playground, formed a planning committee to organize a done-in-a-day playground build.
On Build Day, they expected about 60 volunteers, but ended up with a hundred. Alongside fellow community members, teens hauled wheelbarrows, shoveled dirt, and assembled equipment, constructing a beautiful new playground in less than 12 hours.
Says Kelly, since the playground build, “The park has gone through a complete transformation – a total 180. Area residents are shocked at the change.” She adds, “I’ve seen so many families in the park that I’ve never seen before. I knew there were more kids in the neighborhood, but they never played outside.”
Calgary mom Dana Wheatley wasn’t playing around when she took on our Summer Playground Challenge — to visit as many playgrounds with her kids as she could. Over the course of six weeks, she and her kids, Gordie (pictured above) and Nicole, explored a whopping total of 431 playgrounds! “Sometimes I wonder if we’re going to too many playgrounds, Gordie is acting like everything is a playground,” Dana mused while sharing a photo on her blog of Gordie trying to scale a glass railing at the Calgary Tower. But if there's one thing Dana has learned, it's that “there is no such thing as too many playgrounds.”
Improved sleep is one of the many benefits of outdoor play—beneficial for kids and parents alike. Dana experienced this benefit firsthand. Though three-year-old Gordie had been dropping his naps, she said, “we've been really wearing him out in the playgrounds so he's started napping most days again. [Recently] I told him that when we got home it would be time for his quiet time. He yelled, 'No! I want a nap!'"
Many school playgrounds are closed after hours, but that doesn't always stop kids from playing on them. Such was the case at William Penn Elementary School in the Playful City USA community of Bethlehem, Pa.
Some school administrators might have reacted by punishing the children for trespassing, but not Principal Nathan Stannard. Acutely aware that the kids in this low-income neighborhood needed a 'home playground' and had nowhere else to play, he championed the cause to make a formal agreement to open the playground to the public after hours. He hopes to inspire other school administrators to do the same.
A three-time Playful City USA honoree, Bethlehem received a Let's Play Joint Use Grant, with a goal of opening five school playgrounds to the public in 2012. Thanks in part to the support of school officials like Stannard, they opened nearly double that number. Now, children in nine communities enjoy evening and weekend access to playgrounds that were formerly off-limits.
Our hardworking Project Managers are constantly on the road and often participate in conference calls while waiting for flights at the airport. You need to talk quite loud to be heard on the phone at the airport, but apparently traveler Lena deMorais didn’t mind. She gave KaBOOM! staffer Kenny Altenburg the above note (left) while he was wrapping up a call.
Kenny didn't see who had given him the note, but after he boarded his plane, a young woman leaned across the aisle and said, "Thank you for buidling playgrounds for these kids."
The story doesn’t end there. Once they landed in Portland, Ore. Lena actually came to the playground build that Kenny was managing, with four other volunteers in tow. Alongside volunteers from Home Forward (Portland's Housing Authority) and our funding partner Humana, they spent over six hours mixing concrete, shoveling mulch, and assembling playground equipment.
It's always nice to get a firsthand reminder of why we do what we do. We all know that play has myriad physical, emotional, cognitive, and social benefits, but at its core, play is just plain FUN.
That's why, when the National Building Museum opened its amazing exhibit, PLAY WORK BUILD, we had to check it out. The exhibit features Imagination Playground™—those "awesome blue blocks" we all know and love, but also mini versions of the blocks, as well as a one-of-a-kind virtual block play experience.
The only experience more rewarding than playing ourselves is watching our own children play. Pictured above from left to right are daughters of our COO James Siegal, Software Engineer Lukas Eklund, and daughter of Sr. Manager of Online Content and Community Kerala Taylor. As an added bonus, Kerala reported that after playing with Imagination Playground™ blocks for over two hours, her 13-month-old proceeded to "sleep through the night for the first time EVER!"
Back in 2010, we worked with the Windsor Cove housing complex (formerly known as the Palms) in Orlando, Fla. to replace its decrepit playground. The community had been brought to its knees following a mass shooting in 2008, and many of the mothers who lived there were afraid to let their kids play outside. Windsor Cove resident and mother of three Yolanda Robinson told us, "You have people shooting and you have to think—well if I send my kids outside today they just might get shot."
When KaBOOM! staffer David Flanigan recently traveled to Windsor Cove to check in on the playground we had helped build there three years ago, he was hopeful but anxious. The last thing he wanted to find was an empty playground and parents still fearful of sending their children outside. He need not have worried. He found the playground crawling with kids and a community that, according to resident Melody Hills, "continued to talk to one another and come together, despite the challenges."
Melody told David that the mothers who were directly involved in the playground planning and building process moved toward self-sufficiency. "Four of the women gained employment, two went to school, and two moved out of the Palms Apartments Community," she said. "But, most of all, I will never forget the looks on the faces of the children when the playground was completed. That was priceless!"
We know KaBOOM! helps communities build playgrounds in a matter of weeks, but a new study proves what we have seen anecdotally from more than 2,100 playground builds since our founding in 1996: that our impact goes beyond a healthy playspace for kids.
A report by Knight Foundation finds that KaBOOM! projects help volunteers and local organizations cultivate the skills, confidence and inspiration they need to get more involved in their communities. KaBOOM!: Playgrounds that Build Communities provides lessons for groups seeking to engage volunteers in community change efforts. Key to the success is our approach. KaBOOM! offers a highly structured playbook that yields a quick, achievable win motivating people to become more engaged in improving neighborhoods.
This great infographic from Knight Foundation illustrates how our playgrounds spark community change: