Funding play, building hope 

Despite the many stumbling blocks of working in the war-torn Middle East, Whistler-based Playground Builders are more committed than ever

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"On the flight I sat with a Pakistani-educated Afghan who spoke great English and had an awful lot of information to share. He's the head of an Afghan NGO that monitors food distribution for the UN in "red zones" (read: really, really dangerous places like Kandahar) and he was on his way to Herat to coordinate the release of two of his kidnapped employees. They were taken by a Taliban faction who torched the car they were travelling in - his car - because he refused to negotiate or pay them. 'I told the Taliban to kill them and hung up when they called me. That way they won't kill them you see?' Uh, not exactly. His group, like most here, have a very strict policy of not paying ransoms. They understand that it will only create a kidnapping economy and, if you pay once, you'll always be paying."

 

It's the kind of revelation that you might find interesting , possibly even amusing, unless, like the author, yours was an organization constantly looking over a shoulder to obviate similar kidnapping scenarios. And the writer's organization is indeed a shadowy cadre, prescribing regular circuits through Afghanistan, Iraq and the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. It's a group whose actions have directly influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands living in these war-torn territories, yet it purposely flies under the radar of all governments, including the one whose flag it was conceived under - Canada. It doesn't choose sides, though it might be seen to be on one. It doesn't wish to be a target, though in the topsy-turvy world of the Middle East that is often unavoidable. Spy agencies and secret services have heard of the group, as have combatants and insurgents who would use its personnel as a bargaining tool.

The group's leader, in fact, has a street value in Iraq that could seed a tidy retirement; though constantly in danger, this man carries no gun, nor will he deal with anyone who does. His name is Keith Reynolds, and he builds playgrounds for children, creating a childhood for those who've had it usurped by the ravages of war. Or who never had one at all.

As founder and principal of Whistler-based Playground Builders (PGB), Keith frequently finds himself on decidedly non-military missions in decidedly militarized areas, which, ultimately, has been a good thing for many people. After all, with closing on 70 playgrounds to his credit, this is a man whose combination of humanity and his business-minded approach to aid has seen his charity infiltrate perhaps the greatest fusillade of private and public security the world has ever known - repeatedly and with unprecedented results. How he and PGB cohorts like Kirby Brown, Mike Varrin and Kelly Hand continue to achieve such success from their headquarters in a small mountain town a world away from the conflicts comprises a story whose elements are equal parts astounding, terrifying, informative and heartwarming. And something that might make Canadians see the war in Afghanistan and our media-delivered pie-in-the-sky notions of reconstruction at the hands of military/government institutions in a different light.

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