It was August 19, 2017. As an American of South Asian descent, it had been a painful week for Jay -- and for the country in general. The Saturday prior, white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed violently in Charlottesville.
"It was a tough week to be a person of color in America. I talked to my friends and family on the phone a lot. As we watched the news, there were feelings of sadness combined with helplessness."
Then Jay came to Inglewood, CA to build a playground.
"I think it's easy to feel overwhelmed by today's news. But I realized that when a sense of helplessness sets in, it's a sign to put some good back into the world. After such a tragic week, working together with people of different races, religions, ages and backgrounds all to build a playground for kids was such a cathartic experience that gave me hope."
Jay shoveled mulch into the new playspace. He was working alongside people he'd never met, but it felt as though he'd known them for a long time. After a week of emotional withdrawal, Jay was beginning to feel like himself again.
As the mulch pile got smaller, a spirit of camaraderie grew with the other volunteers.
Then, across the playground, he saw a familiar face. It was Jermaine; an old friend he had worked with a few years back.
"It was so fun to see him. We caught up and I asked him what had prompted him to volunteer that day. Turns out that as a kid, he had gone to the school where we were building the playground -- Parent Elementary School -- and was pumped to help the current students get their first real playground."
The old friends worked side-by-side, chatting and laughing for hours. At the end of the day, they joined the full team of volunteers for the ceremonial ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of the brand new playground they'd helped to build together.
"I underestimated how cathartic it would be to do something so basic as shovel mulch. To be part of a team of people coming together to physically build something for kids." said Jay. "It was medicine."
Children intuitively understand the importance of engaging in active play, every single day. While they may not be able to rationalize the cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits of play, they know that play makes them feel happier, helps them let off steam, and gives them a chance to be with friends.
Throughout the history of the play movement, some children have worked extra hard in the name of the play. The stories of these young play heroes will make you smile, if not jump for joy:
In 1995, a seven-year-old girl named Ashley Brodie was instrumental in planning and fundraising for the first KaBOOM! community playground build. A resident of Livingston Manor, the housing complex in Southeast DC where the playground would be built, Ashley had been looking at the empty lot outside her window for months and sketching designs for the playground she hoped to build there. When she met KaBOOM! founder and CEO Darell Hammond and learned about plans to transform the lot into a place to play, she immediately jumped in to help, slipping fliers under neighbors’ doors and walking around to neighborhood restaurants to put donation canisters on the counters. She also personally collected $9.97 in pennies. As the build date commenced, she asked permission to stay home from school so she could help the volunteers and watch her longtime dream come to life.
> Read our new children’s book inspired by Ashley's story, My Dream Playground.
When Alex Griffith of Forest Hill, Md. learned that the playground at the hospital where he was born was in severe disrepair, he took it upon himself to build a new one. Adopted from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Alex said, "Russia is part of me and this hospital is part of me. They gave me life, so I [wanted] to give back to them, to give them a fun place to play.” Alex spent six months researching the existing playground, then proposed the idea for his Eagle Scout Project. To get support, he sold candy, put on a car show, launched a letter writing campaign, went to local business meetings, and forged relationships with Rotary International and various adoption groups. Alex designed the playground himself, incorporating the red white, and blue colors of both the Russian and American flags. Finally in August 2009, more than two years after committing to the project, Alex traveled to Krasnoyarsk to help bring the design to life, and to celebrate his 16th birthday with the grand opening of his playground.
Last summer, a year before Detroit formally declared bankruptcy, a nine-year-old boy named Joshua Smith decided he wanted to help his struggling hometown. He sold lemonade and popcorn in front of his house in the hopes of raising at least $1,000 to improve the city’s parks. Not only did he end up far exceeding his fundraising goal, but his story caught the attention of Kevin Cook, an executive from playground manufacturing company Playworld Systems. The company surprised Joshua on his birthday with plans to build a $50,000 play structure at a nearby park. When Joshua heard the news, he said, “I feel really great!” And so he should!
In spring of 2012, when a city council in Canterbury, UK announced plans to build housing on Kingsmead field, neighborhood kids painted enormous signs to protect their beloved playspace. Orla and Timmy, ages 10 and 11 respectively, attended a city council meeting to take a stand. Orla said: "It's not just for me and my friends but for all the people of the area who live and breathe better because there is a lovely empty green field nearby." Said Timmy: “Often in the evenings, I go to the field and play football with my dad and brother. It's very easy to stay indoors and watch TV or play computer games. Please leave our field alone." Over a year later, they are still fighting the good fight.
In 2010, students at Mount Washington Elementary in Louisville, Ky. prepared a report for a class project to convince school administrators to lengthen recess time. They researched the importance of physical activity and compared their recess time—10 minutes—to that of other schools in the district. When the students presented their findings, the school council discovered that it wasn't enforcing its own wellness policy, and extended recess to meet the recommended minimum of 15 minutes. Perhaps a future class can lobby to exceed to minimum!
Do you know any extraordinary children who have gone the extra mile to spread the joy of play?
Update 8/29: When we last checked in with Ed Barker in April, he had recently completed his 50th playground build with KaBOOM!, but Ed certainly wasn’t satisfied with reaching the half-century mark. In only a few months, he added 10 builds to his tally and has now participated in an incredible 60 KaBOOM! playground builds!
Ed’s unwavering passion and determination to help give kids the childhood they deserve by bringing play to those who need it most also resulted in another milestone: the Points of Light Institute recognized his incredible commitment by naming Ed as the Daily Points of Light Award honoree on Aug. 29. Ed impressed the team at Points of Light so much that they even wrote this feature story about him!
Keep up the great work, Ed!
We always say that volunteering on a KaBOOM! playground build is a “feel-good” experience, and for Ed Barker (at right), that feeling has lasted not just for six hours, but for over six years. A self-described “KaBOOM! volunteer addict,” Ed recently participated in his 50th playground build. He has worked alongside more than 10,000 volunteers, bringing play to 27,500 children in need.
During volunteer appreciation month, we want to take a moment to honor Ed’s inspiring contributions to our cause, and to find out what keeps him coming back. Here’s what Ed has to say:
My real job is for Fannie Mae. I’m a Senior Account Manager – I visit banks, mortgage companies, and credit unions and buy up their loan portfolios. Fannie in turn will securitize all the collective purchases so they can provide capital for more home loans. It’s a circular community reinvestment, so we can put as many people in homes as possible.
That’s actually what attracted me most to the playground builds. What I do day to day, I visit the banks, visit the people in suits just like me, but I never get to see the smiles on the borrower’s faces as they sign the loan documents, or when the bank hands them the keys.
I do get to see that on the playground. The fulfillment piece comes at the very end, when you’re with the people you worked side by side with all day long. You see the smiles on their faces as they see what was accomplished and I especially enjoy the joy on the kids’ faces when they see their new playground. It sounds kind of corny, but it really is cool and validates all the hard work.
There are other benefits, too. I can’t tell you the number of times when I see people who are neighbors but who have never met one another, and who are friends by the end of the day. Really, it’s the playground creating a community rather than the community creating a playground.
The build that sticks out most in my memory is actually the first build I participated in. Fannie Mae was sponsoring five builds in one day in New Orleans the year after Katrina hit. Fannie put their sales meeting down in New Orleans so they could have half the company on site to build playgrounds.
Initially, my main goal for the trip was just to have fun, but I was curious what had really happened during the hurricane. I had a cab driver drive me around, and I couldn’t believe how humbling the destruction was. I had a nice hotel back in the French Quarter with all my creature comforts, and there was complete devastation 15 minutes away. The tone of my trip changed from, “I’m here to have fun” to, “I’m here to work and leave something that others are going to have fun on.”
I did work hard, but I had a blast too. The mulch pile must have been two stories high, and there was ridiculous humidity and heat, but I was up there dancing, having a great time. We even got done a half hour early! At the end of the day, the kids were there and I was collecting up tools wearing my silly Build Day hat, and one kids said, “I like your hat.” I said, “You can have it,” and he took out a coin that he had gotten from a Mardi Gras parade float and he said, “Then I want you to have this.” It meant a lot to him to carry it around in his pocket and yet he gave it to me. It meant that much to me that he appreciated my effort that I still carry that coin around with me to this day.
I caught a bug on my first build. I wanted to have that feeling more often. Since then, I’ve been constantly seeking out if I can build a playground during business travel, or use my vacation time; it’s that fulfilling. I also get free T-shirts and hot dogs, so there are some side benefits, I can’t complain!
It’s all about making the world a little better, one playground at a time. I’ve been able influence others – not only coworkers, but some friends, my neighbors, even my family. I help out on Prep Day too, before the build, and they always want to know, “Why would you want to spend 10 hours one day digging holes, coming home covered in mud and stinking and then go right back out the next day?” But once I bring them to a build, they get it.
With each one of these builds, I’ve made at least one really good friend that I stay in touch with. I’m not great on social media but I’m good at picking up the phone and calling people. There are at least 30 people I keep in touch with, and I’ve gone back to some of the towns I’ve volunteered in to visit with them.
The last build I participated in, my 50th, was in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago, with one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. It made me think, “Why are teenagers shooting each other? How did it get like this?” It all starts at the childhood stage. They lost trust in their family, their neighbors, and their community. So you have to rebuild that trust and show them people care. The playground is just a piece of that.
As a volunteer, it gives you a good feeling when you drive past a playground and see kids and families. You see a mom sitting on a bench you helped build that wasn’t there before. It makes you feel good all over again. Being a volunteer is also about rebuilding yourself – find your passion, find what drives you most to benefit others and throw your whole self into it. When I look back on all the projects I have helped complete, I loved them all. But I am more excited about the ones I have yet to complete.
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:
"It was just a typical Wednesday afternoon in April, and I had no idea what I was about to get myself into. I was picking up my kids after school and heard about a meeting taking place down the hall. They promised a free meal and some entertainment for my kids, and that sounded like a good deal to me.
I went over and found out that KaBOOM! was going to be building a new playground at my local community center. As I was enjoying a hot bowl of stew my kids were drawing their dream designs for the new playground, I was hooked.
As the weeks of planning went on I found myself taking on more and more. Before I knew it I was leading the Food Committee and was walking around my neighborhood asking for donations of food – enough to feed the nearly 200 volunteers we expected on Build Day. I realized how much I was really capable of taking on.
Before this project I was a single mom just doing the best for my kids, but the KaBOOM! project made me feel like I could give so much more. On Build Day all my efforts were totally worth it. It made me realize how strong of a person I really am and how much more I can give, and that is something I’m reminded of every day when I walk by the playground or watch my kids play on it."
– Jesse Chittick, Calgary, AB
Jesse discovered a motivation and drive in herself she thought she’d lost a long time ago. With the new playground serving as tangible evidence of what she can accomplish she’s already on the lookout for another opportunity to make a difference.
Play it forward with a donation today to help people like Jesse realize how much power they really have.
“It was my first week in Boston - orientation week for new students at Boston University. As part of our schedules for the week I signed up for a child-focused service project and couldn’t help but gulp when I saw our assignment – build a new playground – in one day.
Needless to say, I was incredulous. I had NO idea how to build a playground, I wasn’t strong enough to lift anything very heavy, it was going to be an incredibly hot day, and how could we possibly build an entire playground in just one day?
But, thanks to KaBOOM!, it was exactly the opposite of what I had been afraid of. I was amazed at the diversity of people, so many of them as doubtful as I was, who came together to work as a unified force.
We came together as one, not because we knew anything about playgrounds, mulch, or mixing concrete, but because we all had the same goal – to build a great new place to play. We struggled together, worked as a team, and in just 6 hours time we watched as the kids ran out to see their new, shiny, beautiful playground. What an amazing day!”
– Genevieve Fasano, Boston, MA
KaBOOM! helps volunteers like Genevieve discover the power of community.
Play it forward to help more volunteers discover the power of teamwork.
"I could build a playground every day! When you build a KaBOOM! playground, you feel like part of the community, you meet interesting people and you all come together for a great cause.
At my last build, I had the opportunity to work with volunteers from a senior center. They were so excited to be there, and sometimes it’s just about feeling needed. Even though they were helping out the kids, KaBOOM! was really helping them feel needed again.
The positive impact was twofold and multigenerational, changing the lives of the volunteers and the children who would soon be playing on the playground they built."
– Gina Lazo, Coral Gables, FL
Gina has built 2 playgrounds with KaBOOM!, so far, and knows how important it is to get kids outside playing and away from computers and video games.
Play it forward with a donation today so we can keep engaging great community volunteers like Gina.
"I got involved with KaBOOM! through an employee at our local YMCA. I feel that providing a safe place for the kids in the community is a great idea. I am a grandparent of 7 boys and all they do is video games or baseball.
By having a place where they can play, it will get them some much needed exercise. Becoming a volunteer is a rewarding experience because you know you helped build a safe place for families to their kids to play.
I also met many wonderful people who took their time out of their job or household chores to come and build a fun place. It was fun with music, laughter and a joy to see the kids playing on their new playground."
– Leopold Chapa, Baytown, TX
Play it forward with a donation today if you’ve ever had a great experience on a KaBOOM! Build Day like Leo.
At KaBOOM!, we believe in the importance of play, and we also believe in the power of civic engagement. That’s why we build playgrounds. We actively involve local communities in the planning and building process, inspiring them to engage with and care for their playspaces for years after the concrete sets.
On “Make a Difference Day,” this Saturday, October 23, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Patrick Corvington will join KaBOOM!, the Knight Foundation, and other White House cabinet members to build a playground, along with the parents, staff and students of Hyde Leadership Public Charter School. This will be the 1,894th build KaBOOM! has led over the past 14 years, and is one of 13 to be built by KaBOOM! and Knight Foundation this year.
Planning for the playground began at Design Day, held in August at Hyde-DC, during which students, parents and local community leaders met with organizers from KaBOOM! to design their dream playground. The students’ drawings were then used to create the final playground design.
As much as kids love swings and slides, we are excited to complement the community-built play structure with an Imagination Playground™ in a Box. Complete with custom-designed blue foam blocks and elements that encourage sand and water play, Imagination Playground™ in a Box allows children to constantly reconfigure their environment and design their own course of play.
We’ll be building the playground this Saturday in just six hours, but we know it will serve as a catalyst for community engagement, physical health, and creative growth for years to come. That’s why we say, “It starts with a playground.”
What if our nation were able to capitalize on the energy of Americans willing to serve and volunteer for a year or more?
That's the key question posed by Shirley Sagawa in her book, The American Way to Change: How National Service & Volunteers Are Transforming America. The truth is, there's a lot of unharnessed energy out there, and Sagawa shows us how we can tap into it. She profiles real volunteers, as well as the organizations that helped motivate them.
And, we're happy to report, one of those organizations is KaBOOM!. We're not just about building playgrounds and saving play, we're also about developing communities by empowering and uniting local volunteers. Here's one story Sagawa shares in the book:
"Cynthia Gentry thought a new playground would be a fitting way to memorialize her next-door neighbors--a mom and her two young children who were killed in an automobile accident. After consulting the grief-stricken father, she teamed up with other friends and neighbors who wanted some good to come out of the tragedy. But where to begin? ...Gentry searched the Web, found the KaBOOM! online playground planner, and used the Do-It-Yourself tools to help organize the project. Gentry led hundreds of community members who raised funds, solicited donated materials and worked together to build a new place to play."
Sagawa goes on to outline how Gentry kept in close touch with us after the playground was completed and continues to champion the cause of play in her hometown of Atlanta. Says Sagawa, "The path that Cynthia Gentry took, from volunteer to civic activist, is well-traveled."
If you're a self-described "ordinary person" looking to impact your community in an extraordinary way, read more from Sagawa here.