Iraq, Gaza and the West Bank are known as some of the world’s most dangerous places, but for Whistler-based philanthropist Keith Reynolds, they present an opportunity to make a positive difference.
Reynolds, a former forestry worker, founded Playground Builders in 2006. It’s a Whistler-based organization that forms partnerships with non-governmental organizations to establish children’s playgrounds in conflict zones. The organization has established 20 playgrounds to date in places such as Baghdad, Jenin and Ramallah and is now looking to establish another in Afghanistan.
Reynolds and two others left for the Middle East this week to check on existing playgrounds and survey for new ones — to be built with funds raised earlier this year in Whistler. When they return they’ll be raising more money for the 10 new playgrounds they’ve committed to build.
Each playground is built using local workers, in an effort to reduce unemployment and inject money into the region.
The genesis of Playground Builders was about 20 years ago when Reynolds was backpacking in Europe and suddenly had an urge to see the Middle East.
“I ended up just chasing the sunshine and basically said to my friends, if it rains tomorrow, let’s fly to Tel Aviv,” he said. “That was from Crete and it was raining, and then we ended up in Tel Aviv, and then Jerusalem.”
Curious about the peace process, Reynolds decided to make a tour of the West Bank and soon saw the effects that years of conflict have reaped on the territory, which has long been marked by fighting between Israel and its neighbours.
“I just thought there was a chance we could make a difference for the future, and that was to build some playgrounds,” he said.
Reynolds established the first three playgrounds out of his own pocket two years ago in three locations throughout the West Bank. Those locations included Jenin, a city where a refugee camp was the site of a fierce 12-day battle in 2002 between soldiers with the Israel Defence Forces and Palestinian guerrilla fighters.
Since then playgrounds have been established all over the Middle East, in places such as North Gaza and most recently in the northeast area of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital city, where a playground opened in March.
Reynolds, who visited Iraq in 2003 shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured, remembers having a tough time finding his way to the war-torn country.
He was traveling alone in Jenin when he heard about Saddam’s capture and decided to go to Iraq. He was booked on one of the first flights from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, but the flight was cancelled after a transport plane had been shot down.