Used Twin Cities play sets go where fun is in short supply

Twin Cities playgrounds find new life around the world.

A dozen volunteers wielding hammers and wrenches descended upon an Eden Prairie playground this week with an unusual mission: to dismantle the colorful play set, lug it to a nearby truck and give it a new home somewhere on this planet.

By the day's end, the swings, tunnel slides and climbing towers were on the highway to Illinois. They will get a face-lift and safety tuneup before being shipped to Zambia, where a new batch of children will give the playground a second life.

Across the metro, suburban playgrounds are making their way to such unlikely places as Kyrgyzstan, Ghana and Haiti. A playground from East Bethel is now on a ship to Uganda. A St. Louis Park set is heading to the Dominican Republic.

"This isn't about just donating playgrounds; it's about changing communities," said Paul Bierhaus, a Twin Cities board member of Kids Around the World, an Illinois-based nonprofit that coordinates the project.

Offering children a safe place to play provides a central and safe community gathering place for families, he said. Playgrounds teach social skills, develop physical dexterity and offer a chance for "kids to be kids" in countries torn by poverty and war.

Minnesota, Illinois and California are the national leaders in providing playgrounds to developing countries, said Bierhaus. Of the three, Minnesota is the only state that has no paid staff. In the past two years, Kids Around the World shipped 139 playgrounds to every part of the globe, he said, including 17 from the Twin Cities. That number will only climb as more communities learn of the unusual option.

"We have 43 playgrounds in Plymouth," said Lowell Luebeck, parks maintenance supervisor for Plymouth. "As we replace them, we'll be more than happy to donate them to Kids Around the World."

Effort takes off with used gear

Kids Around the World, a Christian organization with a roughly $3 million annual budget, was launched in 1994. It initially focused on donating new playground equipment, sending more than 100 sets abroad through 2010, said Bierhaus. But when it decided to refurbish equipment rather than send it new, the number of donated playgrounds exploded to 139 in just two years.

The Eden Prairie play set will be sent in the months ahead to a camp outside the Zambian capital of Lusaka, he said. The camp is home to about 1,000 children, including AIDS orphans, street children and impoverished kids.

Doug Ernst, the city's parks and recreation supervisor, stood near the playground as a noisy bobcat yanked up the metal poles and teams of men hauled away chunks of equipment. Eden Prairie typically would recycle as much of the equipment as possible, he said, and send the rest to a landfill. Donating it is a far better option, he said.

Eden Prairie youth have nothing to fear, however. They're about to get a state-of-the-art, $1.6 million playground to replace the one being hauled away, he said.

From Plymouth to Poland

Plymouth kicked off the trend in the Twin Cities. Bierhaus and his volunteer crews hail from Wayzata Evangelical Free Church in Plymouth. Bierhaus, a former police officer from Wichita, Kan., said he approached the Plymouth Police Department about the program two years ago. Since then, Plymouth has sent two playground sets abroad, including one to Poland and one that will land in Mongolia next year.

Last year, a representative from the Polish town of Glogow even came to thank Plymouth -- and Woodbury, which also donated a playground -- for their donations.

"They came to a City Council meeting and we had a reception for them," said Luebeck, adding that they brought a slide show showing how the playground equipment looked in its new home.

No word for 'playground'

The donations all come with stories. After the playgrounds are sent, Bierhaus typically flies to their new home and works with volunteers recruited from across the globe who give their time and money to be part of the experience.

"I remember in Uganda, there was no word in Swahili for 'playground,'" said Bierhaus. "Like in most places, the kids had come to watch. But as soon as the colorful posts went up, they knew this was something they'd enjoy."

After volunteers erected a playground in Glogow, Poland, the mayor couldn't believe his eyes, said Bierhaus. The idea of people donating something -- and asking nothing in return-- was emotionally overwhelming. The mayor went on to organize volunteer crews to build play areas in the city, too, he said.

Kids Around the World doesn't do all this work alone, Bierhaus said. The organization often works with Rotary Clubs and other groups that suggest a country that could benefit from a playground. They then join forces to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Landscape Structure, a Delano-based manufacturer that built many of the playgrounds heading overseas, provides replacement parts and hardware to make sure the equipment arrives ready for the trample of little feet.

And those feet hit the play sets running.

"There's something in kids' genes," said Bierhaus. "They see a playground and automatically know what to do."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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