Ten years ago when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast states, someone 1,400 miles away was watching.
Ginny Reynolds was 9 years old when Hurricane Camille struck her own hometown of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, back in 1969.
There was much to rebuild and the needs were so great that “children were the first ones who were sort of pushed aside,” she said.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, all that came right back to me,” said Reynolds, who now lives in Washington, Connecticut, and has four adult children of her own.
She got on the phone with her childhood friend and they decided that day to go back to Bay St. Louis and build a playground. They started raising funds but soon learned they needed more help. She found the KaBOOM! website, and contacted them.
But even though the Washington, D.C.-based organization was dedicated to the power of play, not everyone was convinced at first that New Orleans and other hurricane-battered areas needed playgrounds when they so desperately needed food, shelter and other basic supplies, said Kate Becker, chief mission offer and chief operating officer of KaBOOM!.
At that point, KaBOOM! had been around for 10 years and was building playgrounds all over the country. But they were largely funded by corporations who chose sites for playspaces that would benefit their customers or employees.
Going to the Gulf region, where KaBOOM! previously had built only two playgrounds, would mean changing that funding model and taking on more risk, said Becker. But children crave play and needed a way to process all of the new stresses they were feeling in their lives, she said.
After talking with Reynolds, she “convinced us we shouldn’t wait.”
Planning began and three months later, in December, the project in the tiny Mississippi town was underway.
When taking stock of playgrounds in the region damaged by Katrina, the organization’s staff saw that even those that withstood the 175 mph winds were decades’ old and creaky. So Operation Playground was born, and to date nearly 200 play spaces in 44 cities around the Gulf of Mexico have been erected in bright oranges, purples and greens.
The projects start with a design day, where the neighborhood children get to draw their dream playground. In Bay St. Louis, many of the kids drew roofs in their pictures, which was unusual. “I think it’s because so many roofs were gone, and that was so present in the kids’ minds,” said Becker.
Parents then join a planning committee, and the work gets underway with the funders and community providing the volunteer construction team.
Following Hurricane Katrina, most Internet and phone service was down, so Becker said they weren’t sure how many community members would come out to build the first Bay St. Louis playground.
“Our best hope was that we would have 200 volunteers, and we were thinking if we only ended up with 100, we could still make it happen. We ended up with 600. It was one of the most powerful days, it was just incredible,” she said.
It became an impromptu reunion. Many of the Bay St. Louis residents, who had moved away to stay with relatives or relocated to FEMA trailer parks, hadn’t seen each other in months. And if they did run into each other, it was usually in food distribution lines. Here was a reason to be upbeat — and be together.
“When you’re living in a place that’s so completely destroyed, to have just one spot, beautiful, new and organized, it’s just so uplifting,” Reynolds said.
The organization has continued building play spaces in other areas devastated by disaster and strife, including Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado struck in 2011, and this year in Baltimore where tensions erupted after Freddie Gray died in police custody.
“Building a playground is a way to rally people around something positive,” said Becker. “There’s hardly anyone who can think you shouldn’t be building a playground for kids.”