As Director of Operation Playground for KaBOOM!, I saw a lot in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, but I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Play World’ in New Orleans. It was a hot summer night in 2007. It was dark outside and too late to be conducting site visits in parts of the city I didn’t know, but I heard there was a neighborhood with a lot of kids that really needed a playground and I wanted to check it out before I flew home to Chicago the next day. As I did for most of my site visits, I was driving the KaBOOM! van that night – a not-inconspicuous purple and orange mini-van with giant KaBOOM! logos on the hood and sides. It definitely left a lasting impression!
When I turned down the dark street heading toward Guste Homes, I saw a small crowd in the road and felt afraid. My bravado vanished as I began to question the wisdom of being out by myself in a city struggling with crime that still lacked street lights. There was no way to turn around, though, so I drove resolutely ahead, my heart pounding with fear.
As I pulled closer, I was struck by the unmistakable sound of kids playing and laughing. I saw a large crowd of women and children gathered together at an intersection. My fear vanished as I heard people cry out, “It’s the KaBOOM! lady,” and “Are you going to build us a playground?” Of course, I had to pull over.
When I got out of the car, I was immediately surrounded by tiny kids high-fiving me, hugging me and telling me they needed a playground. I couldn’t help but laugh as my fear was completely replaced by joy.
One of the moms came over – I think to rescue me from the throng of kids – and I asked her what was going on. She told me she and some other moms created a play area because the neighborhood didn’t have one. This was a play date in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Welcome to Play World
That was when I saw ‘Play World’ for the first time.
It was a small corner lot, overrun with weeds, seemingly littered with broken toys and play equipment. The mother explained to me that the kids didn’t have a playground so they made one with whatever they could find. It wasn’t pretty, she said, but it was the best they could do.
There was a small table and chairs for playing house, a bike without wheels stuck in the dirt and a makeshift sliding board made out of a piece of plywood propped up against some crates. The moms had also painted cheerful signs that said ‘Welcome to Play World’ and ‘Happy.’ With a small crew of kids as my tour guides, I got to walk through Play World and see everything up close. Each child had a story to tell about their favorite part of Play World. Their enthusiasm for this small, imperfect place brought tears to my eyes. It still does. In many communities, this lot would be considered dangerous and off limits, yet here it was a sacred place where these kids, who had already endured so much, could just be kids. A place lovingly built by parents who knew their kids needed a place to play.
KaBOOM! and Operation Playground
I stayed and talked to the moms and kids for more than an hour. They knew all about KaBOOM! – that we had created Operation Playground right after Katrina to rebuild playgrounds across the Gulf Coast, that we had already built several playgrounds in New Orleans, and that we were looking for new sites for future projects. Over and over again they told me how important our playgrounds were to helping their kids be kids again. They talked about being displaced from their homes (still), the challenges of living in a rebuilding city, and the storm-related anxiety and stress their kids felt even now, a couple years removed from the hurricane. They told me how much a new playground would mean to them and how it could help their children escape the stress of their daily lives and heal. What they knew instinctively is backed up by research that says following a disaster, play can help mitigate the impact of toxic stress that children experience.
That night I committed to finding a way to build a playground in their neighborhood and I’m proud that KaBOOM! did, along with 90 others across New Orleans and 194 across the Gulf Coast following Katrina.
I think about that night often. As a mother now, I have such deep admiration for those moms and for parents just like them who have prioritized play for their kids after a disaster to help restore normalcy and give kids the childhoods they deserve. Parents like Ginny Reynolds, who reached out to KaBOOM! days after Katrina, urging us to build a playground in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which we did, just 110 days after the storm on December 17, 2005. Starting with that first Operation Playground project, KaBOOM! directed more than $27.1 million into playspaces across the Gulf Coast and mobilized more than 43,000 volunteers who braved the heat (and rain!) to help transform empty lots from Houston to New Orleans to Biloxi to Mobile into safe and fun places for children to play. We couldn’t have done it without them.
With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, I’m enormously proud of the work we did in the Gulf Coast. Our mission was simple – to help rebuild playgrounds in communities impacted by the storm – but it required a broad coalition of companies, foundations, volunteer groups and individuals to make it happen. There are too many organizations and people to thank by name but we are so grateful to everyone who stood with us contributing time, talent or treasure.
For those who care about play and want to help children in New Orleans and nationwide get the play they need, I encourage you to learn more about KaBOOM! and get involved. Together, we can ensure that all children get the playful childhoods they deserve.
If you are interested in supporting KaBOOM! and celebrating the resiliency of these communities, you can purchase a limited-edition tee by September 7th.
Sarah Pinsky is Director of Account Management at KaBOOM!, the national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring all children get the play they need to thrive. Now in her 12th year with the organization, she currently oversees a dedicated team of ‘Boomers’ that work with the organization’s outstanding Funding Partners. Previously, Sarah was Director of Operation Playground, the KaBOOM! initiative to rebuild playgrounds across the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. Sarah and her husband Todd have two great kids, Charlotte (6) and Nate (4) and are frequently found exploring new places to play.