Darell Hammond (not to be confused with the similarly named "SNL" alum) is very serious about playing around. He's spent more than 15 years establishing KaBOOM!, the nonprofit he founded in 1996, as a national leader in civic development, building playgrounds from the ground up for communities in need, and encouraging kids, and adults, to play as much as they can.
"This work has given me a sense of purpose," Darell told The Huffington Post, in an interview on Thursday. "Playgrounds are an example of what's possible in these desperate times."
Without the possibility of hope in desperate times, Darell might have had a very different life. He was only two-years-old when his father, a cross-country commercial truck driver, left his mother to take care of him and his seven brothers and sisters in Jerome, Ill. His mother was deemed mentally unfit to take care of her children, so he and his siblings were left with a choice: individual foster care, or a group home.
"What we got was Mooseheart, the facility where I lived from four to eighteen-years-old," Darell said. "There was a 1200-acre campus, a pool; when I look at the circumstances we could have been facing, I feel so fortunate. It was a strict upbringing, but I'm grateful."
When Darell left Mooseheart, he headed to community college for a few years, and Ripon College in Wisconsin for another few, before finally settling in Chicago, inspired by President Clinton's call for national service and outreach.
There, he helped initiate City Year Chicago, an Americorps program devoted to encouraging community service among teens. A short time after, City Year asked Darell to plan a project for their national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Many ideas were passed around among the volunteers, but Darell suggested building a playground. He'd built one in Evanston, Ill, during his freshman year at Ripon and remembered the effect it had on the community.
Two playgrounds were built in Columbus that year, and, at 24 years old, Darell was asked to spearhead similar projects in Washington DC. He was certainly establishing a pattern, but it wasn't until 1996 that he understood the direction in which his life was headed. That was the year he read an article in The Washington Post with the headline: "No Place to Play."
"It was about two young kids who had crawled into this abandoned car during a heat wave and died," he said. "They couldn't find a playground, park, basketball court, anything within 3 miles of where they lived, so they were playing in this car."
Along with a small crew, Darell set out on a mission to create great playspaces in communities across the country, in walking distance of every child. By 1999, KaBOOM! was building more than 50 playgrounds a year, utilizing thousands of local community volunteers.
After Hurricane Katrina, KaBOOM! started Operation Playground in the Gulf States. "A hundred days after the storm we built a single playground in Mississippi where the eye of the storm came ashore," Darell said. "It was the first structure rebuilt in the area. You could go down there any hour a day and there were hundreds of people hanging out at this park."
Playgrounds become a center for communities to congregate, a safe place for families to interact, he says. Since Katrina, KaBOOM! has built 152 playgrounds in the ravaged gulf states.
Darell's other recent mission is based on eliminating the "play deficit" inherent in our country today. He mentioned a study, which found that 52 percent of schools nationwide had eliminated recess since 2000. Decreasing playtime outside, Darell says, only forces kids indoors and back to computers, video games, and other idle activities, as well as stunting their creative development overall.
"This is a big deal, you know?" he said, passionately. "We need to build and improve places to play, so people stay longer and come back more frequently. We need to play ourselves and be outside and bring other kids with us. We need to show up at meetings when parks and rec budgets may be cut. Play is important!"
Watch a video about Operation Playground below: