When Emily Weinlick first volunteered at a children's home in East Africa, she brought several suitcases stuffed with toys to share and clothes that her 12-year-old body had outgrown. The next time she visits, she could bring an entire playground.
Last summer, Emily traveled with her mother, Elizabeth Weinlick, from their Woodbury home to Arusha in northern Tanzania. They volunteered for two weeks at Living Water Children's Centre, a home that provides care and education for children whose lives have been affected by malaria and HIV.
What started as a short trip that Elizabeth thought would give her "special bonding time" with her daughter sparked a deep desire to help others. Now, Emily is working with Kids Around the World, a charitable organization that refurbishes old playgrounds for communities in need, to raise $20,000 to purchase a playground for her friends in Tanzania.
While Elizabeth worked alongside the center's nurse, Emily, now 13, played with the children and taught classes, even substituting for a teacher who had become ill.
"As a child myself teaching, I thought maybe I could get them to a place an adult couldn't," Emily said.
Despite a lack of textbooks and basic school supplies, the teachers do their best with the materials they have, Emily said. In math class, for example, the teacher must hand-write every assignment for each student. Because there aren't enough pencils for every student, the children complete their schoolwork by sharing.
But what bothered Emily the most was the school's lack of play equipment.
"Yes, school books and pencils and clothing are important, but if a child can't play or imagine, they're not really a child," Emily said. Play is so crucial to the development of a child, she pointed out, that the United Nations recognized it as a child's right.
"I'm not saying you need toys to be happy," Elizabeth said. "But think about something that engages a person and facilitates interaction."
The center's outdoor play area is made up of a flat field with a single seesaw, a slide and a few rubber tires. Emily said she rarely saw the children playing there, instead opting to play a ballgame or make houses and people out of rocks.
"Being able to play is the most important aspect in a kid's life," Emily said. "They should be able to use their imagination and let their spirit run free."
Since returning from Tanzania, Emily has raised $1,300, appeared on "The Wayne Eddy Affair" radio show, hosted a fundraising event at Applebees and received the Volunteer of the Year award in New York from the Living Water Children's Centre Fund.
In August, she will march in the Woodbury Days Parade to raise awareness for her project. She set up a gofundme.com account and hopes construction of the playground will begin in June 2015.
In the meantime, Emily wants to return to her friends at Living Water Children's Centre, who have become like a family to her and her mother.
"They're doing a great job not just with the children's educational and physical needs," her mother said, "but they're raising beautiful people."
Callie Sacarelos is a Twin Cities freelance writer.