From Zero to 60 Playgrounds – Chance Volunteer Encounter Leads to Playful Pastime
A chance volunteer project led to a joyful pastime for Ed Barker – building playgrounds. He’s helped build 60 in the past six years.
It started in 2007 when Barker, a senior account manager for Fannie Mae, attended a sales meeting in New Orleans. Fannie Mae was partnering with a group called KaBOOM! to help build a playground in a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and they needed volunteers.
“It was a great opportunity to help a community, and when I arrived to work on the playground, I saw how badly that community was hurting,” says Barker. “You can’t believe how humbling it was to think about the comfort of my hotel and see the complete devastation. You work that much harder to get this thing done and do it right.”
Barker loved the experience. From the moment he and the other workers showed up to break ground on the project, community members appeared from everywhere to offer help. “Some of them joined in on the construction, others brought food, and before long, a jazz band set up and started playing,” says Barker.
The experience led to an epiphany.
“We sometimes think backwards about community-building,” Barker says. “We assume that in a strong community, people build playgrounds. But what I witnessed, and have continued to witness, is that when you build playgrounds, you yourself help bring the community together and strengthen it.”
That first experience with KaBOOM! – a national nonprofit that aims to build a playground within walking distance of every child in the United States – got Barker hooked. Six years and 60 playgrounds later, he still loves the volunteer work. He often arranges his travel (including vacations) to correspond with KaBOOM! playground builds and will check with KaBOOM! to see whether there are any projects in the area if he is traveling for work.
What Barker especially enjoys about KaBOOM! is that every playground in unique, and local children have a hand in the design. “When KaBOOM! meets with a neighborhood about a playground project, the first thing it does is ask children to sit down and draw their own images of an ideal playground,” Barker explains. “Later on, when the engineers and planners meet to develop a design, the first things they study are the kids’ drawings.”
Barker has worked on multiple playgrounds in his native Chicago area and recently recruited his wife, daughter and son to volunteer.
“I’m having too much fun to ever stop doing this,” he says. “And I’m committed to keep sending out the message that we need to encourage play. ... Innovative play encourages the mind.”