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Mission possible: playgroundbuilders.org

A typical dinner party, the main course a delicious if sating memory. Desert bowls streaked with chocolate stand empty, wine glasses slosh ruby dregs, and espresso cups clink solemnly around the table. The conversation has been wide-ranging. Books, babies, musical acts. But now we're onto current events, wringing out the politics of the slow-to-surface truth behind the recent death of a kidnapped female British aid worker in Afghanistan. It seems she wasn't executed by the Taliban, as previously believed, but killed accidentally by would-be-rescuers.

"I wouldn't want any kind of armed intervention if it were me ," remarks Keith Reynolds, referencing the foggy military chaos behind the propensity for such operations to go suddenly and irretrievably south. "I don't want to be responsible for anyone else being hurt."

But while the rest contemplate what sort of ham-fisted, storm-trooper scenario might have befallen the woman, I'm thinking this: Reynolds' is a noble, considered sentiment-even if you weren't a target and stood no chance of being kidnapped. But given that he's leaving on his third self-funded trip to Afghanistan in a couple days, that he is a target with a street bona fide value in Iraq, and that on this upcoming trip he's actually been asked not to stay with his hosts for fear of reprisal by the Taliban, the comment is far more flinty. So convoluted are the territorial struggles of the Middle East that Reynolds has cultivated hostage-in-waiting status... for building playgrounds for kids.

This topsy-turvy reality hasn't deterred his Whistler-based organization, Playground Builders, or three of its other directors - dinner guests Kirby Brown, again accompanying Reynolds to Afghanistan, Mike Varrin, who had been on a previous trip, and Kelly Hand, PGB's communication director - from enacting one of the greatest success stories in all of global charity work: in only four short years this tiny, direct-action non-profit has built an astounding 62 playgrounds at schools and gathering places across the fractious Middle East - 29 in Afghanistan, 13 in Iraq, 17 in the West Bank and three in Gaza. All while flying under the radar of governments, militias, and every level of security imaginable, motivated by the simple axiom adorning the playgroundbuilders.org website: Creating Play, Building Hope.

One look at the photos of kids' ecstatic faces on their website and you get the picture.

The organization doesn't suffer the overhead problems of most foreign NGOs, with no offices, cars, phones, faxes, computers, security or staff. Personnel pay their own way abroad to scout locations and shake hands, putting a human face to their efforts. PGB also eschews photo ops and politicization ("We're 3G - no god, no guns, no governments"), and the monies it raises aren't filtered through a morass of agencies. Reynolds handpicks partners: a few buddies in Whistler, and, on the ground, established NGOs (pre-funded and pre-outfitted) already working with women and children.


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