December 17, 2010 Features & Images » Feature Story

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


"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.

While it's a difficult but necessary chore to remain apolitical in an area that's so highly politicized, it can be frustrating. For instance, PGB's expanding efforts have been impacted as part of the wide-ranging repercussions of Israel's punitive building-materials embargo on Gaza; try as they might and despite the best of intentions, on their most recent scouting and inspection trip this October and November, Keith and Kirby could not get into either that territory or the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. But such occasional frustrations are happily offset by successes and the watersheds these often represent. On the same trip, Keith's third to Afghanistan and their second together, Keith and Kirby got four pilot-project playgrounds underway in the city and province of Herat, an area they had never worked in before.

It's a great story. On the other hand, for security reasons, it's also a story that must be brought carefully into the light.


"After breakfast and tea we took off to the Hazara area of Kabul to see the three playgrounds that we approved during our visit last year. I'd witnessed poverty before but both Keith and I were dumbstruck when we rolled through this area the first time and determined that we would do all we could for these people. Descendants of the Mongol Invasions and victims of the most brutal ethnic violence both before and during the Taliban takeover, they lack everything. No running water, no electricity and crumbling mud schools supplemented by tattered UNICEF tents. The playgrounds are a huge hit and the teachers and students are incredibly appreciative. These people haven't seen much kindness and are viewed as a lower caste. On our trip last year Keith was so compelled by the rubble of one rock-strewn school courtyard scattered with torn canvas tents that he handed over the cash to the school principal on the spot to at least get the land leveled (in preparation for a playground). At another school several girls approached me in their bright white hajibs and asked to please build them more rooms with roofs so they could continue to come to school when it rains and in the dust storms. All they have is school."


A native of Kamloops, Keith Reynolds left a successful forest products career for a six-month travel sabbatical back in 1985. On a whim in the middle of his European travels, he flew to Jerusalem and checked into a youth hostel. The young Palestinian working the front desk didn't fit Reynolds' TV-bred received view of the dramatis personae in the Middle East soap opera. Curious, he accepted this new friend's invitation to dinner at his family's home in Hebron, and a tour of the West Bank in his father's car. It was an education, and a beginning.

Drawn by the lives and struggles he intersected, Reynolds found himself returning again and again to the Middle East's problem spots - investigating, learning and living the reality on all sides of its ongoing conflicts. Touched by what he saw on the ground and searching for a way to help, he began donating time and money to charities working specifically in areas of conflict. Accompanying Medical Aid for Palestine on a mission to Gaza in March 2002, the group was detoured by Ariel Sharon's Operation Defensive Shield, instead landing in the northern West Bank town of Jenin. He returned to Jenin in December 2003. After weeks with an Israeli tank parked outside their door, unable to move freely in the territory or accomplish anything, they watched on television as nearby Iraq spiraled further into chaos and Saddam Hussein was captured. Reynolds' deep-seated urge to engage took over.

"I'm going to Baghdad," he declared to his horrified companions, and promptly left for Amman, Jordan. With no flights to Baghdad, he headed to the city's outskirts where Iraqi refugees were streaming in. He offered a driver of one of the sleek, white, refugee-delivery American Suburban SUVs $200 to take him to Baghdad. Running without lights, the ensuing stealth overnight drive through the desert got him into Iraq. Mistaken for a journalist, he was able to talk his way around the country, seeing for himself the impact that occupation and insurgent actions were having on innocent lives.

Thus began a seven-year odyssey of unprecedented personal danger that would also yield unprecedented access to improbable locales and situations, teach Reynolds how to get things done in the fractious Middle East, and forge a personal mission: to do something about the increasingly empty lives of thousands of children whose fathers were dead or languishing in jails, leaving them little to do other than resent and react in kind. Whatever he did, Reynolds decided, it had to be in a way that proffered jobs, empowerment and ownership to the communities involved.

By this point, wide-ranging experience had led him to believe that giving kids a childhood might just keep them from squandering adulthood on war. He'd also come to believe that aid organizations operating in concert with, or through, governments were often too top-heavy, too bloated by bureaucracy to be timely or financially efficient. Direct action was the only effective means.

Out of his own pocket, Reynolds paid for the construction of two playgrounds in the Marda and Jalazon Refugee Camps in the West Bank and waited to see what happened. The results were instant and transformative: locals burst into tears talking about the impact on their communities. Buoyed by this success, Reynolds built a third playground in Jenin.

In November 2006 he was returning to Whistler from a trip to observe the playgrounds and scout more locations. Worn from the tension and traveling, he was sneaking into town along a back route, hoping to avoid people and aiming for his bed. But at home there was a new message on his answering machine from a friend. "Just saw you drive by - I'm coming over with some beer." During the ensuing evening, Reynolds explained just what he'd been doing in the Middle East and showed the man some pictures. The dude's reaction was to plunk $50 down on the table. "I'm in," he said. And that was the start of Playground Builders.


"After listening to Kalil's mother and her eloquent if heartbreaking logic, it's hard to avoid concluding that life for women in Afghanistan is about to become even more tumultuous. For all the aid pouring into this country and earmarked for women and children it seems as though only a fraction of it is making it to the places of need. There's no question that the young girls now playing on the playgrounds we have built - the same girls now watching modern media, getting cell phones and learning from new mentors - will become young women and demand change.  Of course that is good. But of course they will be resisted. Will violence against women increase as they push back and attempt to accelerate change in this patriarchal society? Will there be enough social safety mechanisms to protect them?  What will it mean with a Taliban influence in the halls of government ministries? Who will help them if they're prevented from helping each other? It's already more than bad enough here for women: they have the lowest rate of literacy in the world and the second highest rate of maternal mortality. Over a quarter of their children will die before they are five and three quarters of them will be malnourished regardless."


In only four short years, the PGB direct-action charity/non-profit has built an astounding 67 playgrounds at schools and community gathering places: 35 in Afghanistan, 13 in Iraq, 17 in the West Bank and three in Gaza. In Afghanistan alone these playgrounds are used by a cumulative total of over 150,000 children (e.g., because intact buildings are few and far between some Afghani schools, like factories, run three shifts a day for as many as 14,000 students - yes, fourteen thousand students). This is crucial when you consider the country's demographics. After decades of conflict, this landmine-riddled country of 28 million remains one of the world's poorest. Adult literacy is below 30 per cent; life expectancy less than 45 years; 44 per cent of the population is aged 14 and under. With over two million war widows, children are often forced to be the breadwinners.

Run through Reynolds' personal phone and laptop, and you'll see that PGB suffers none of the overhead problems of most on-the-ground foreign NGOs - no office, no cars, no cellphones, faxes, computers, security or staff. It also eschews photo ops and politicization: the hard-won, grassroots monies it raises aren't filtered through the morass of governments or their agencies. To that end Reynolds handpicks partners: a few buddies in Whistler, and, on the ground, established NGOs (pre-funded and pre-outfitted), run by locals and already working with women and children.

"They have to have their heart in the right place," he says. "You'd be surprised how many don't."

Depending on the country and availability of materials, it takes about $5,000-$10,000 to build a playground. Locals are given jobs preparing the land, crafting and welding play structures, and doing finishing work - like painting and installing benches so parents can watch their kids play. Such simple economics feed into the sense of community ownership and custodianship of the finished playground. An example: where the Taliban will pay a man $10 USD/day to fight and possibly (likely) be killed, PGB pays the same man $7 USD/day plus lunch to build a playground for his kids and go home at night.

The notion that jobs and pride are a powerful carnet have led to other initiatives: PGB also lent some business expertise to Zeitouna, a Palestinian consortium that produces some of the world's finest extra-virgin olive oil but was having trouble getting its product to market. You can now buy the high-grade oil in every store in Whistler and other places along Canada's West Coast (one of the best olive oils I've ever tasted); even Italy trades their own lower-grade olive oil for most of the remainder of what Zeitouna produces each year.

The net result is jobs, jobs, jobs and fewer people with an appetite for the conflict stream. All accomplished by private citizens who have taken on all the risk and responsibility, almost improbably independent of the governments of Canada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or Israel.

Keith and Kirby's most recent trip to Afghanistan was more than successful in this regard. To get things going in Herat they scouted some 15 locations suggested by a friend, chose eight, and embarked on getting four of them up and running. This involved establishing a direct working relationship with one of several contractors they interviewed, as well as a local manufacturer who'd been given drawings and asked to build equipment to their specifications.

Despite all the running around required, the four pilot playgrounds were started right away, while the PGB were still on the ground. Try doing that in, say, a place like Vancouver or Whistler - it would take a year.

"The red tape here is phenomenal, but the idea is to get to the right people," says Keith, about the benefits of PGB's lean-and-mean approach. "We built with the right people at the right time and went direct to the education department of the province. If a big NGO came in and tried something like this that would slow everything down - just like it has with regard to getting things done in the rest of the country."

And so, within days of their return to Canada, PGB has pictures of a close-to-finished basketball court; one playground is fully complete, and, as you read this, the other three will have been finished, tidied and hosting some 21,600 kids. In addition to packing cash to get things done, Keith and Kirby did whatever else they could, lugging over suitcases filled with donations ranging from four team's worth of women's soccer jerseys to several pairs of winter boots, children's books and letters from kids in Canada who raised money for playgrounds and wrote to the Afghan kids.

It's the kind of operation that can, on the spot, for a mere $500 with the contractor they've chosen, throw up walls for schools where the kids are sitting outside, braving the elements under only a roof. This type of construction would otherwise have cost thousands through an NGO or official channels. Just one of the happy outcomes of a trip that has opened up happy new horizons for Keith and PGB.

"I think the bottom line is that now we're established in a new area of the country and don't have to rely on just one NGO. We only had one reliable partner in Afghanistan, but now we have two," summarizes Keith. "On our next trip we hope to work into new areas-like Kandahar. If you think the need is bad in Kabul and Herat, you should see what its like in these red zones."

One can only imagine. And given the recent rise in support for the Taliban-which is less likely an embracing of the Taliban than the populace tiring of NATO's coalition and/or President Karzai's regime-the quicker PGB gets in there the better. Since the fall of the Taliban, literacy rates for females in Afghanistan have risen from 12 per cent to 28 per cent. And given the direct link between play and literacy demonstrated in a recent empirical study, that's some serious momentum PGB doesn't want to lose.


"When we arrived back in Kabul, we immediately went to see our equipment manufacturers, Farhad and Ibrahim, partners in business for over 20 years and just like brothers. When Keith first found them they employed seven guys and now they run crews of up to 70 partly because they used some of the money from the first playgrounds as cash flow to buy more equipment. People in poor places do things they don't want to because they lack choices. We'd rather see a yard full of young men learning a trade and thinking about their own future than looking at Taliban recruiting leaflets and thinking they don't have one. We showed them a new and simpler design for attaching swings and asked them to brighten up the colours. Then we took off to look at two newly completed playgrounds with a promise to meet them for lunch at Farhads' nearby home. The playgrounds were near perfect and the one we opened on International Peace Day, surrounded by trees and filled with laughing kids, couldn't have been a better choice."


NOTE: You can donate online at through either Canadahelps or Paypal. You can also donate through your Nesters card (ask at the till) or with Husky loyalty cards (two per cent of each purchase goes directly to PGB). A PGB fundraising event is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. at Millenium Place. Keith and Kirby will give an inspirational multi-media presentation followed by live music.


NOTE: italicized excerpts are from the PGB Facebook page blog written by Kirby Brown. You can read the details of PGBs most recent trip to Afghanistan here:



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