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Building Playgrounds and Communities

Darell Hammond was 2 when his dad left the family and about 4 when his mom suffered a breakdown after struggling to care for her eight kids alone. Rather than going into foster care, Darell and his siblings went to live in a residential childcare facility outside Chicago. “So it was a less-than-ideal circumstance, but I didn’t feel neglected, I didn’t feel unwanted,” Hammond recalls. “There were adults in our lives doing incredible things on our behalf, and I feel very fortunate for that.”

Those 15 years spent at Mooseheart Child City & School, supported by the Moose fraternal organization, were formative. In college, Hammond was drawn toward public service and volunteerism, participating in an urban studies fellowship where he learned about mobilizing residents in struggling communities to work toward positive change. Though he never finished college, he continued working to make a difference, leading the inaugural City Year program in Chicago, which enlists young people to fight the dropout crisis. Through City Year, he also organized a day of service that involved 600 City Year volunteers and 500 community members in building two playgrounds.

Hammond knew he wanted to devote his life to helping others, but it was only after a tragedy involving two children that his goals came into focus. After moving to Washington, D.C. in 1995, Hammond read a newspaper story about two youngsters, ages 2 and 4, who climbed into an abandoned car and suffocated in the heat of an August day. The story prompted Hammond, then 24, to reflect on his own childhood and how his life might’ve been different if not for caring adults who provided a safe environment for him and his siblings to grow, learn and play.

In October 1995, a couple months after the children died in that hot car, Hammond led a group of Southeast Washington residents in building a playground. It would be the first of more than 2,000 community playground builds he would lead as founder of the nonprofit organization KaBOOM! Today, KaBOOM! has raised more than $200 million, enlisted major corporate sponsors, including The Home Depot and Ben & Jerry’s (which even named an ice cream flavor after the organization), and rallied a million volunteers, including VIPs such as first lady Michelle Obama.

Officially founded in 1996, KaBOOM!’s mission is to provide safe places for children to play in struggling neighborhoods by mobilizing community volunteers and empowering them to create more positive change. More than 5.5 million children now have safe places to play as a result of the program. “Essentially we’re trying to solve two problems: a deficit of social capital and community leadership from the inside out, and the lack of play spaces that exist in our community,” Hammond says.

KaBOOM!’s efforts have gained kudos from notables that include Mrs. Obama, who celebrated the organization’s 2,000th playground build in a Southeast Washington neighborhood by helping mix concrete, assembling playground components and offering words of inspiration.

One step inside KaBOOM!’s offices and it’s clear this isn’t your typical organization. The lobby features a slide and a swing, the kitchen is stocked with cereal and peanut butter and jelly, and CEO Hammond glides about the office on a scooter. Spontaneous games of kickball or hopscotch are common. “Last week, we went out on Connecticut Avenue and tried to engage strangers in street games like four square,” he says. That playful mindset is a crucial part of the culture here, and it underscores the nonprofit’s mission, as well: to save play.

Play, seemingly so fundamental to any childhood, is more important than ever, he says. “Only one in five kids lives within access to a park. Almost 50 percent go to school without recess. Kids are tethered to their parents or to electronics more so than ever.”

The consequences are evident in the rising child-obesity rate, especially in minority youth populations, he says. But play, particularly outside of adult-led activities, also fosters healthy socialization and creativity. “Not only does creativity help kids have a fun childhood, but it helps kids figure things out. Play is how kids rationalize the world, and kids are losing that.”

Citing a survey in which 1,500 CEOs responded that the No. 1 competency they need in future employees is creativity, Hammond says, “With kids getting less and less playtime, particularly unstructured versus organized activities, this is going to have dire consequences for the future work force in how people are going to be able to figure out future challenges and problems.”

KaBOOM!’s mission goes further, of course; in building playgrounds, it helps build communities. That philosophy follows a model of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which harnesses the unique strengths of each community to bring about change. Hammond learned about ABCD through his fellowship studies under John “Jody” Kretzmann, director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.

“To me, [the ABCD philosophy is] being able to focus on your gifts and your talents versus your needs and your deficiencies. If you focus on your deficiencies, it’s almost like you’re in a hole and you keep digging, versus focusing on things you can do well, and trying to get out of that same hole. That’s been an important part of it for me,” Hammond says.

His role, he says, is “to work from inside communities and be that spark, a kind of explosion of hope and opportunity to get people to do something and be involved in our kids’ lives.”

In his best-selling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play, Hammond writes about the evolution of the organization, including some early challenges. “We didn’t know about growing, scaling, fundraising, writing an HR manual and all the things that are necessary, giving somebody confidence to actually invest in both the idea and me as the person,” he says. “But, every project, we just got better and better at it.”

In addition to on-the-ground instruction and encouragement for volunteers, KaBOOM! provides online resources for things like grant writing, “FUNdraising 101,” recruiting volunteers, working with the media, do-it-yourself playground improvements and the proper maintenance necessary for a safe play space.

With each KaBOOM! playground project, kids play an integral role, providing initial ideas that become the basis for the playground design. “Then they see their parents, their neighbors and people they don’t know actually constructing this in a volunteer barn-raising fashion—it’s memorable. And hopefully they’ll pay it back somewhere down the road,” Hammond says.

The transformations in the volunteers are equally profound. Hammond remembers a recent playground project organized with a battered women’s shelter in New Jersey. “At the end of the day, these moms were literally in tears talking about how they felt like they did something not only for their kids today and the other kids in the center but for all kids,” he says. “It was a sense of empowerment for them that hopefully provides cascading steps of courage and confidence to do more things in the future.” 

From the Ground Up

Setting Goals: We have a very sophisticated dashboard that looks at inputs, outputs and outcomes. We call it: value, leverage and efficiency. How valuable are the services we’re providing? How leveraged are the dollars people give us? And how efficient are those dollars, so that one year we can build 100 playgrounds with XYZ dollars and the next year we can do more because we’ve become more efficient?

Picturing Success: We always begin with the end in mind and ask: What are we trying to measure? How will we measure it? What will success look like and feel like? If you have this conversation, no matter what the issue is, you’ll always have a magnetic north that you’re driving toward.

Motivating Team Members: You’ve got to be a good leader and a good follower. Be a good follower of their thoughts and ideas by being a good listener, by celebrating their successes and challenges and wins.

Fostering Innovation: Hiring the right people inspires an atmosphere of curiosity and imagination. If it’s not just you doing it but 90 people doing it, it’s an idea factory.

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