Not many people can say they’ve been to some of the most war-torn countries with the sole mission of making children happy. Playground Builders‘ chairman Kirby Brown is one of them. An easy person to talk to with obvious stories to tell (see above), Brown has been with the charity since 2007; since that time, the organisation has built almost 200 playgrounds worldwide, and Kirby has seen time and again the positive physical and emotional effects that playtime can have on children – no matter where they call home.
ML: The charity Playground Builders is such a unique idea. How did you know this was something you wanted to get involved in?
KB: Keith Reynolds had been at this on his own for a little while when I asked him to sit down and give me the full scoop. We were sitting on a patio in the Village (Whistler – ed.) and he gave me the simple story – it broke his heart to see kids in these crazy areas that he had visited playing in the rubble of their own homes. Maybe it was the wine but I went down a rabbit hole so deep I realized that he had stumbled onto something profoundly elegant – the simplest way to change the world for a child without getting trapped in the complexity of these areas. Who can argue with the idea to build a playground? And when you get behind the veil of these areas and build a playground at a school, you change the entire dynamic. Teachers and parents see it as positive progress. Kids have a blast. Socialize better. Expend tons of energy and are way more attentive in class. The act of unstructured play is totally transformative for kids. They come to school more often, learn better…ultimately it means they become better educated and in these areas that is how you change their worlds. We get invited everywhere we go – no matter what the conflict undertones are. Everyone gets it. What else has that power? Crazy. I knew I was hooked for life.
ML: Surely, now more than ever with the state of international politics, this is not only a necessary mission, but a dangerous one. Have you given thought to worst case scenarios (for example, ISIS), or had any scary moments out “in the field”, as it were?
KB: It is dangerous but it’s easy to overstate it. Afghanistan is the same population as Canada and the vast majority of people are just trying to get by – just like us. That being said, going there is my personal choice. the people that work with us do so because of the strength of their own convictions. They accept the risks. So do I. Keith and I each have the same letter that we leave when we go there. If we get kidnapped no ransom is to be paid – it just fuels a kidnap economy; and no military attempt at rescue. I don’t want someone else’s kid to die trying to save me. Kidnapping is the worst case and I’m as prepared as anyone can be for it.
Scary moments in the field? Yes – there’s been a few. Strolling on my own in Herat, I got pulled into a gun shop, the door closed behind me and I thought I was heading out the back into a trunk… It turned out they just thought I was crazy for walking around on my own and assumed I must be looking for a gun to protect myself.
I almost got Keith and I and our two Afghan buddies shot by taking a picture at the wrong time. Stupid.
Watched Keith almost get pulled out of a car.
Got trapped in a traffic jam in a particularly unfriendly town (controlled by a warlord that had shot two UN workers a month earlier at the same spot) – spent an very uncomfortable hour waiting for one of the guys strolling by with rifles to notice the two pale dudes in the back seat of this old beater Toyota …didn’t happen.
Strolled inadvertently into a mined area. Etc. Etc.
ML: Is there one moment you can remember that crystallizes the reason you’re a part of Playground Builders?
KB: I was in a new playground in northern Kabul – the first school of 48 in that area to get a playground but this school was really close to a big military base near the fortified exit from the city – a major roadway and, at the time, target. Kids had been caught in the crossfire and killed/injured in roadside attacks. One of the teachers was asking us to build a first aid centre so they could help hurt kids when that happened and I was so deflated… we don’t have endless funds and you have to draw a line somewhere, brutal as that so often is.
Anyway, I was feeling so overwhelmed by the need and knew we were going to be leaving soon. Back to the surreality of here. I started crying. By myself, quietly in a corner of the courtyard. Then there’s a hand on my shoulder and the principal, in perfect English, looks down at me and says…”Look up at these children playing; even one hour of this is enough.”
Hooked for life. Over and over again. I wake up at least once every week to new pictures of kids playing. We’re closing in on half a million. When it’s 2 or 3 million…what will Afghanistan look like then? Can’t fucking wait to see it.
Tickets for MULTIPLICITY, Sunday, April 12th, are still available right here.