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From a laptop in Whistler to the conflict zones of the Middle East, Playground Builders has been putting smiles on kids' faces for over a decade



There are a handful of lightbulb moments you could pluck from when trying to pinpoint the origin story of Playground Builders.

The Whistler-based charity, which provides safe places for kids to play in war-torn countries throughout the Middle East, turned 10 this year. But the genesis of Playground Builders can be traced back even further.

Perhaps it was the day 32 years ago when the registered charity's founder, Keith Reynolds, was backpacking through the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the first Palestinian he befriended, an affable hostel worker named Sami, made an eerily foreboding comment about the Israeli settlers he encountered on a bus as they were making their way into Hebron: "I think those people will cause trouble."

Or maybe it was the trip, in 2002, to a much different West Bank when Reynolds witnessed scores of young children that had been wounded by Israeli military strikes.

"I realized thousands of Palestinian men were rounded up in detention centres or prisons, leaving families without a breadwinner or father figure," Reynolds recalls. "Without a safe place to play, they would just sneak out and throw rocks at Israeli tanks. The dangerous streets became some kind of play."

Or it could have been the young boy Reynolds met a year later in Baghdad who, after losing his father to the then-nascent Iraq War, took to dismantling downed Soviet-built fighter jets for spare cash.

"I took a picture of this child," Reynolds says, pausing to let out a soft sigh. "He had the eyes of an old man in a 12-year-old frame. I could see in his eyes that his childhood was gone. That stayed with me."

Maybe it doesn't really matter what drove the former lumber executive to launch Playground Builders in the fall of 2007. Maybe what matters more is what he and a dedicated group of volunteers have given to thousands of children across the Middle East: the chance to just be kids in a part of the world that doesn't always afford them that right.

This is the story of Playground Builders, one of Whistler's most unique charities.

Humble beginnings

Reynolds doesn't always take vacations in the traditional sense.

Holidays, for him, don't usually revolve around R&R, sunshine and bottomless sugary drinks. He often visits "areas of concern" to learn more about the misunderstood geopolitical hotspots of the world.

"I saw that the media stories we were getting about the Middle East conflict appeared not to tell the whole story," he says.

In the mid-'80s, curious about the worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he went straight to the source. During the ongoing Lebanese Civil War, he hopped on a plane to Beirut. Then Syria.

When Reynolds returned to Canada from his backpacking trek, he went back to his "real job." But the Middle East held a certain sway over him, and he would return to the region on volunteering missions in the early 2000s.

As he traveled more and saw firsthand the devastation being wrought, he knew he couldn't afford to sit idle. Reynolds and a friend dug into their own pockets to pay for the first two playgrounds they had built, in the refugee camps of the West Bank. When he returned in 2006 to gauge their impact, the locals burst into tears describing what the playgrounds had done for their makeshift communities.

The day he came back to Whistler, desperately wanting a hot shower and warm bed, Reynolds got a call from a friend, longtime local Colin Law. (Law passed away in a car accident in 2007.)

"He told me, 'I've got some beer and I'm coming over.' So I couldn't exactly refuse," Reynolds remembers. He showed his friend some videos from his trip, the beaming faces of rambunctious kids throwing themselves off monkey bars, bouncing on teeter-totters.

Law slapped $50 on the table. "I'm in," he said.

From there, Reynolds told other friends about his volunteer work. They were sold.

The efforts scaled up organically, first in the Palestinian Territories and then moving into Iraq, eventually catching the attention of the Ministry of Education there, before launching headlong into Afghanistan not long after the Taliban began to withdraw.

Kirby Brown, Playground Builders' vice-president, became one of those early converts over a bottle of wine back in 2006.

"I'm sure the wine had something to do with this, but he's describing this idea, and Keith is just Keith," recalls Brown. "He's like, 'Look, I pay for all the stuff and I go to my friends and they write me a cheque, and if they give me $7,500, that's what I spend on a playground.'"

It's an approach the charity still uses to this day. Reynolds and all the other volunteers involved pay their own way, covering every cent of travel, scouting, and any other costs that might be incurred on their site visits.

They only partner with aid organizations on the ground that agree to waive their administrative costs, and funds are dispersed to build more playgrounds just as quickly as they come in.

Finding the right groups to partner with is crucial to Playground Builders' blueprint. They refuse to pay bribes, and only extend work to local contractors that give them a fair price.

This is often the most complicated and time-consuming part of the work the charity does.

"Truly, that's the job: dealing with the logistics. Foundationally, it's about finding the right in-country contacts that have the right infrastructure. That takes a ton of time. Making sure they are who they say they are," Brown explains. "The construction is, frankly, the easiest part."

Reynolds goes to great lengths to ensure "our money isn't going sideways or is unaccounted for," particularly in post-conflict areas where basic infrastructure can be lacking and the environment is ripe for scams. Some groups in Afghanistan, for instance, would regularly overcharge on their contract bids, seeing an opportunity to skim a few extra bucks off the Westerners. So they turned down their bids.

"We've now been in Afghanistan nine years, and some of the people I'm working with today I was working with back then," Reynolds notes.

Once the aid groups are given the thumb's up, the money needs to get into the right hands. Funds will often take a circuitous route from Whistler to New York and onto another intermediary bank, in say, Germany, before it ends up in Downtown Kabul or Baghdad or the Gaza Strip.

But no matter how much vetting is done beforehand, Playground Builders still has to rely on good faith.

"We are operating on the concept of trust, with a lot of backup. We've been really fortunate," says Reynolds. "They know we're not just here for six months. We're here for the long haul. We trust the people on the ground — we have to trust them with our lives."

The Risk Factor

Working in some of the world's most unstable regions is going to come with the odd operational hazard.

Reynolds seems to accept this risk as just another part of the job.

"That's a given," he says. "There are a very, very small percentage of areas where we're working in that have bad people. But as we all know, it only takes one."

When travelling, the team tries to blend in as much as possible. They aren't backed by security, drive in old, beat-up trucks, and uphold a strict no-gun policy.

This is the Catch-22 at the heart of Playground Builders' work: as a non-profit, the charity needs to maintain a certain public profile to attract funders, but the more attention they garner, the bigger the bull's-eye on their backs.

"Lots of people know we are high-priced targets for kidnapping," Reynolds says. In the non-profit's early years, when tensions ran high at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, Reynolds shied away from press. Other in-country volunteers, like Dr. Inayatullah Mujaddiddi, a doctor who has worked closely with Playground Builders since the charity entered Afghanistan almost a decade ago, have had to scrub their social media networks of identifying photos. That precaution became even more necessary after Reynolds and Dr. Inayat, as he's known, received "a night letter" threatening their lives.

But no matter what safeguards are put in place, Reynolds and Brown have still found themselves in precarious positions over the years.

There was the time their vehicle slowed to a crawl after a motorcycle accident snarled traffic on the serpentine streets of Kabul. The men hunkered down as best they could so no one would notice the two odd-looking foreigners in the backseat. Then, out of nowhere, a man scurried up to the rundown truck and swung open the rear door. They quickly slammed it shut and sped off, not waiting long enough to discover the man's intentions.

"The thing that can go most wrong for you is the everyday danger," Brown says. "We've been on the road through some travel areas where they just don't want you there. Then there are other areas where you are perfectly safe. You have to have an awareness of the deep undercurrents of the country."

There was another instance on one of the charity's first forays into Iraq when visa issues held Reynolds and Brown up at the Baghdad airport. By the time they were set to leave, they received a call from a friend who had tipped them off to some "bad people with knowledge that we were there," Reynolds explains.

"At this time, there were a lot of kidnappings and ransoms. We had credible information that there was a bounty on my head."

They were instructed not to leave the airport under any circumstances. After spending nearly 40 hours in the terminal, they caught a flight to Beirut until the threat boiled over.

"We really do keep a pretty good Spidey sense going," adds Reynolds.

But although they have brushed up against the edge of danger, the Playground Builders' team has been fortunate enough to avoid catastrophe. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the altruistic nature of their work.

"It's hard to argue with giving a kid a playground," says Playground Builders' board director Mike Varrin. "It's not about God, or government or guns. It's about playgrounds."

Ticking all the right boxes

The beauty of Playground Builders' model lies in its simplicity.

Unlike some other international organizations that swoop in to developing countries, drop off aid, and leave, Playground Builders' approach is holistic, chipping away at the social, economic and cultural barriers to self-sufficiency.

Beyond the obvious benefits of offering children a place to play (we'll get to those), Playground Builders help to stimulate stagnant local economies.

"It's not just a wonderful thing, but you're talking about one of those truly elegant solutions," Brown muses. "Yes, the kids are getting a place to play safely, but it's also much deeper. It's a symbol of hope and of progress. It's economic development on a very small scale."

Two-hundred and twenty playgrounds have been built in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to date, and with each one of those projects, "there's a little group of guys with a welding machine and guys in trucks with shovels going out and levelling ground," Brown says. "All of our materials are sourced locally. All of our labour comes from locals. And off we go."

The impact this has in communities where the local economy has effectively been ground to a halt by conflict and corruption cannot be overstated.

"The big thing is, we create jobs on the ground. And that is really necessary," says Reynolds. "In conflict, most of the jobs are gone because the infrastructure is destroyed or embargos are put on, so common people don't have jobs, which creates economic instability. Economic migrants. Economic refugees. World refugees. So one of the wins is to create jobs on the ground for (locals) to build playgrounds for the children."

The direct economic impact is clear. Less so are the intangible effects doing good for the community can bring to the young, underemployed men who often have to resort to less rewarding work to put food on the table.

"It's a really feel-good project for these guys. Some of them had been building an endless amount of bomb blaster doors for the American military, and then we came in with these drawings to build a couple of playgrounds, they got the job and they were so happy," says Reynolds. "If you believe in any kind of karma, that's it. It's a good feeling for these guys to be building a playground for their children, who can have real childhoods."

It's this ownership that locals' have over these projects, the sense of community they can see being fostered with every playground that gets built, that will ensure the charity's work will sustain itself for years to come.

"We have to work with the locals and remember these are not just our projects — it's their projects," Reynolds says. "We stimulate the idea and do some fundraising, but it really is their project. They put the playgrounds where they want. They do it themselves."

It also doesn't hurt that Playground Builders has remained staunchly apolitical since Day 1. They only work with non-denominational organizations so as not to strain existing religious or tribal tensions, and despite the odd pushback, they rarely encounter opposition.

"It really skirts those bigger, more macro political and philosophical issues in these areas," Brown says. "We do occasionally get people who say, 'I can't believe you're supporting this group of humans or that group of humans,' but ultimately, you should go do some digging into why you feel that way. It's about as simple a philosophy as you can get."

'Children only playing with dust'

When Mike Varrin joined the Playground Builders' board, it was important for him to see the value of the charity work being done with his own eyes.

"I wanted to touch it and go there," he says. So Varrin joined Reynolds on a 2008 trip to Palestine, spending a month in the West Bank.

He was struck by what he saw.

"It was really incredible just to see all these kids," Varrin recalls.

"Its not hard to teach a kid how to play. You give them a playground and it's like ducks to water."

Benches are a key feature of every playground the charity erects, giving family members the chance to "watch their kids play and maybe start a discussion," says Varrin. "Maybe you've got kids, parents from different religious backgrounds talking, and it starts there."

The benches also serve as a de facto hub for the community.

"They became meeting centres and chatting areas. We also have trash bins to make it a cleaner environment," Reynolds says.

Perhaps the best argument you can make in favour of the work Playground Builders does is the remarkable effect it has had on boosting student enrolment. Take Afghanistan as an example: schools were tightly regulated under the Taliban, and girls were prohibited from attending during the Sunni fundamentalist group's five-year rule. Even when girls were allowed back at school, they didn't have much to look forward to, explains Dr. Inayat, the Aghan doctor who partners with Playground Builders.

"In Afghanistan at that time, there were children only playing with dust," he says.

"Previously, the girls were considering the school like prison for them."

Under Afghanistan's predominantly lecture-based curriculum, students would bore easily on long days with no real outlet to let off steam. The playgrounds then, which the students typically refer to as "parks" in the same vein as an amusement park, not only offer a chance to be active and socialize with their peers, but a small glimmer of hope, a reason to get excited for school once again.

The proof is in the proverbial pudding: just three days after installing Afghanistan's very first play area under the Playground Builders' umbrella, more than 300 students that had previously dropped out re-enrolled at the Kabul school. The same trend has been seen across the country, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of students clamouring to be transferred to a campus with a playground. In all, 600,000 kids have used — and will continue to use — a playground the charity has helped build.

"In Afghanistan, our children are always listening to very bad news from the TVs. Many, many killed there, many, many killed there," says Dr. Inayat.

"But whenever you people come and see the impression on their faces, you can understand you have given the whole world to these children. The whole world."

The next step

If there's one area where Playground Builders could stand to improve, it's fundraising.

"We're small, and we kind of stink at the fundraising, to be honest," Brown says.

Part of that is due to the challenge of balancing safety with exposure that was mentioned earlier. But with the conflicts in Playground Builders' key areas cooling off, Reynolds says it's time to kick fundraising efforts into high gear. The organization builds somewhere between 15 and 25 playgrounds a year, at around $7,500 a pop, and regularly maintains existing playgrounds.

The group has ambitions of moving into another conflict zone that has been under the media spotlight for several years now: Syria. But that will require some deep pockets.

"We would need a big wallet to get into Syria," says Reynolds, noting that at least $100,000 would be required to get the ball rolling.

Playground Builders has attracted some big-name donors over the years. Disney and Thornhill Real Estate Group contributed a few years back, and Lush Cosmetics remains a featured donor, along with Love Child Organics, Scotiabank's Whistler branch and The Adventure Group, locally.

The organization has enjoyed immense support from Whistler, and is often the charity of choice at local fundraising events. But with requests for new playgrounds constantly pouring in, Playground Builders has to keep the money flowing to stay apace.

"It's really difficult to say no to these projects because we are lacking money," says Reynolds.

In an ideal world, Reynolds' hope is that governments and other aid organizations — like the handful in Africa that have mimicked the Playground Builders' model — will use the charity's blueprint to build playgrounds of their own.

For a man like Reynolds, the consummate go-getter, the tireless advocate for the misunderstood and underprivileged, affecting positive change is as simple as just doing it. Everything else is just an excuse. "Anybody can do something. Just be nice to each other," he says. "If you want to make a change, you have to get moving. And keep moving."

It's Reynolds' example that has kept Playground Builders moving through the last decade, a man with a clear vision who refuses to take no for an answer.

"Here's a guy who literally had his little melamine kitchen table in Emerald in Whistler, with his laptop ... doing this work that has gone around the world," Brown says. "That's pretty incredible if you ask me."

To learn more about Playground Builders, and to donate, visit playgroundbuilders.org.