A Movement That’s More Than Child’s Play
A mentor of mine often says: service is the rent we pay society for living. When I look back on my life I realize that I owe a lot of back rent for what I’ve been given.
When I was just two years old, my father, who was a cross-country truck driver, left my mother to care for me and my seven siblings.
As valiantly as she tried, she just couldn’t do it alone and, after several nervous breakdowns, we all moved to the suburbs of Chicago -- to a group home called Mooseheart the Child City. I was four years old.
Mooseheart was a 1,200-acre campus with 500 students who lived on it. Although it was difficult circumstances that brought us there, I realize now what a great opportunity I had as a student of Mooseheart.
It was there, when we were participating in sports and seeing that other schools around us were consolidating, that we got new uniforms every year.
It was there, when the band programs of the teams that we were participating in or the arts programs at other schools were being eliminated, that mentors and volunteers throughout the country sent us art supplies and band instruments.
I reflect on that experience often, but it really hit home when I was 23 years old, living in Washington, D.C. and reading this headline on the front page of the Washington Post: No Place to Play.
The story was about two kids, Lesha and Clendon, who were two and four years old, but who didn’t have the same support network that I did when I was their age.
Looking for a place to play, they crawled into an abandoned car during the heat wave of 1996 and tragically suffocated to death.
The reporter went down to the section of Washington, D.C. where this happened and canvassed block after block over a period of three weeks.
The only green patch of lawn – a park, a playground, a basketball court, a swimming pool – that she could find was three miles from where these kids were living.
Coupled with the fact that she also encountered the Mayor at the time pointing the finger at the housing authority, the housing authority pointing the finger at the department of urban and housing development, the residents pointing their fingers at each other, the consequences of these actions were that nobody was going to do anything about it.
The legacy of these two kids, unlike my legacy and the years that I had, was going to go for naught.
So a few of us got organized and went down to that community to bring everyone together to build those kids a simple, safe place to play so that Lesha and Clendon would never be forgotten and so that the community would realize they did have the power to make change.
That idea started a movement that has now built more than 2,200 play spaces, raised $200 million and unleashed a million volunteers -– and we are just getting started.
Did you know that about half of all elementary schools do not have recess? Only one-in-five kids live with access to a park.
Low income and minority communities are even worse. One in three kids under the age of ten years old are not just over weight, but are 30 pounds overweight.
Kids today under the age of ten are getting upwards of seven and a half hours of some sort of screen time a day – computer, video or monitor.
So this play deficit that exists is having dire consequences to the physical, emotional, social and cognitive development of our kids.
It is through play that kids get the opportunity to socialize, build, create, tinker – and most importantly – have fun.
It was the power of play and community-built playgrounds that spoke to me as a young man.
It was the power of this small idea and what we learned along the way that built KaBOOM! into the organization it is today, with supporters from all income levels, zip codes and political parties, including Maria Shriver who herself helped us build 32 playgrounds when she was First Lady of California.
If I had listened to the people that told me that play didn’t matter, that it was nice but not necessary, that it was a luxury, and that there were better and cheaper ways to build playgrounds than unleashing volunteers, I wouldn’t be able to look back at the thousands of communities that now have a great place for their kids to play.
I decided that it was worthy and significant, and used my whole life to pursue this sense of passion and justice.
It doesn’t matter if you currently work for or want to work for dot-org, like KaBOOM! is, a non-profit, or dot-com, like a business, or the government; nobody has a monopoly on passion.
Nobody has a monopoly on the next big idea, or the solution to the challenges that we are facing.
It doesn’t matter where you come from or all the situations and things that have led up to you being who you are.
You determine what is both significant and worthy –- and what the expectations are for your own trajectory.
We all have the ability –- and obligation -– to harness our passions and put them to use.
What will you do with yours?
Darell Hammond is the Founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a not-for-profit based in Washington, DC dedicated to saving play by making sure there is a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America. KaBOOM! works with communities and corporations to build playgrounds in North America where there are none. To help start the conversation and educate Americans about the importance of play in children’s lives, Hammond wrote The New York Times bestselling book, KABOOM!: A Movement to Save Play, now out in paperback.