Playground under construction
Megan Panagopoulos

On May 20th, KaBOOM!-a national non-profit organization dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the lives of all children, especially those growing up in or around poverty-partnered with the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH) to build a playground for formerly homeless children and families in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “KaBOOM! found the Gaithersburg community to be underserved in playgrounds and decided to do something about it,” KaBOOM! Associate Project Manager, Brittany Riley, said.

According to KaBOOM!, only one in four adolescents gets the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. This statistic is even lower for children of low socioeconomic status, who may lack safe places to play or decline recess in favor of screen time. Not getting enough exercise may increase their risk of childhood obesity as well as inhibit their ability to learn basic social skills, such as collaboration or problem-solving.

In March, Riley met with the children and watched as they drew their dream play spaces. “They put swimming pools, castles, moon bounces; everything and anything you can imagine,” Riley said, “I then worked with adults to bring these kids’ dreams to life. KaBOOM! believes that play gives students and children the opportunity to thrive, both physically and socially.”

The final play space included a rock climbing wall and large slide, all suggested by children in the community.

KaBOOM! and their associates hope that this play space will also be a place for adolescents.

KaBOOM! faced challenges including the logistics to make, build, and run a play space smoothly, as the project cost roughly $100,000 and took 300 volunteers to complete.

The project took place at Seneca Heights Apartments, one of MCCH’s supportive housing communities. MCCH is an organization that works to build a safe, stable community through meeting the urgent needs of people experiencing homelessness and increasing the supply of affordable housing. The organization currently serves 1,600 men, women, and children with numbers fluctuating to roughly 3,000 annually.

“We work to help create solutions and permanent housing options for members who have experienced homelessness,” said Susie Sinclair-Smith, Executive Director of the MCCH.

The Marriott Foundation, established to give back to the community, specifically targeting youth to help them aspire to and achieve a promising future, has partnered with KaBOOM! ten times previously. KaBOOM! and the Marriott Foundation approached the MCCH with an interest in this site for three reasons: location, physical need, and community involvement.

The Marriott Foundation is based out of the Chesapeake Bay region and was looking to take on a project in their own backyard. The housing development in Gaithersburg met the criteria, as it had fallen into disrepair and the surrounding community demonstrated a profound interest.

The project was funded largely by the Marriott Foundation, but other parties contributed as well.

“It was a combination of KaBOOM!, Marriott, and we ourselves providing $15,000,” Sinclair-Smith said, “clients living in the community raised $300 through penny drives and a bake sales.”

The playground equipment incorporates learning with the development of real social and physical skills to encourage enrichment.

“This is for people who deserve to experience a new and exciting fresh start,” Sinclair-Smith said.

Of the 300 volunteers present on build day, 160 were Marriott employees and the rest were MCCH volunteers and members of the local community.

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Volunteers who had always wanted to get involved finally had a hands-on project opportunity, said Montgomery College student Fatu Dahn.

“All my friends keep asking me, ‘Fatu, you are so tired, you just had exams, why are you doing this?’ I’m doing this because I love to help my community and this is something that I’m very passionate about.” said Dahn.

Dahn and her friends came out to help support and give back to their community. “I love the energy. Music is playing and everyone is excited and ready to help. We’ve been out here for hours but it only seems like its been 30 minutes,” another local volunteer said.

The Marriott employees were serving as part of a global initiative called Spirit to Serve. Spirit to Serve is a day of service where teams of Marriott employees worldwide go out and volunteer in or serve local communities. The playground was just one of these projects taking place.

Anne Gunsteens, the Executive Director of the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, described the day of service as an integral part of the Marriott foundation, providing a way to honor their associates worldwide for their dedication and commitment.

“We hope that this can be a safe, enriching place for all ages,”  Sinclair-Smith said, “I want to see everyone from infants to high schoolers coming here to form an amazing community.”