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By Ken Trainor
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving, three men took the industrial-strength playground from John and Patty Henek's backyard in River Forest.
It's OK though. The Heneks are hoping other kids will get some use from it ... in Haiti.
Their two boys, now 14 and 11, had outgrown the structure, which was installed about 13 years ago by the previous owners, who evidently weren't messing around.
"This was not your mom-and-pop backyard playground," says Tim Clauson, international playground director for Kids Around the World, the Rockford-based charitable organization that has carved out a unique niche in the nonprofit field. "This was one of the best commercial landscape structures, the kind used in parks. We just got one of these from a park in Elk Grove Village, which is going to India."
At a recent school function, John Henek met a friend who worked for a playground manufacturer. He recommended Kids Around the World and their playground recycling program. At the time, the only person using the Heneks' equipment was the next door neighbor's daughter. And the structure butted up against the garage, which needed work.
The friend was "Johnny on the spot," Patty Henek recalls. He texted Kids Around the World and e-mailed a photo of the equipment. Before long, Clauson and his two colleagues arrived and took it all apart in three hours. They had to cut the supports off at the base because they were set in concrete. New extensions will be welded on before the next installment.
Which could be in Haiti, as the Heneks are hoping, but Clauson says it depends on the timing and the need. When we reached him just after Christmas, he was getting ready to leave for Ghana.
"It takes about three to four months to find the right project," Clauson says.
Kids Around the World started 15 years ago, an outgrowth of the Rockford Park District, which wanted to do something for Rockford's Sister City, Brovary in the Ukraine, so they built a playground. The program kept expanding and this spring, he estimates, they will install their 200th playground somewhere in the world.
There's a chance it could be the Heneks'.
Clauson got into this line of work when he accompanied his daughter's youth group to New Orleans in the Katrina aftermath to build a playground.
"I got hooked on it," he says.
When he heard about the position at Kids Around the World two years ago, he applied. Now he travels two weeks out of each month, supervising teams who have built or installed "reclaimed" playgrounds in Haiti; Iraq; Chile; Liverpool, England; and Guatemala, to name a few.
"It's a rewarding job," he says. "Kids are the same the world over. Last year we installed a playground at an AIDS orphanage in Zambia. The kids didn't know what a playground was. It was fun to watch them get familiar with it."
Organizations like Compassion International and Rotary donate the funds that pay for shipping. The teams take photos of the playground in its new setting to show the donors, so the Heneks will eventually get to see where it goes and who's using it.
Patty Henek says that when she first told people what they were doing, one or two said what Haiti really needs are houses. "But this is what they know," she replies. "It's a way to give back hope to communities in disaster areas."
She recommends Kids Around the World to others. "They're super nice, great to work with."
Though it was "bittersweet" saying goodbye to the equipment, the boys were on board, she says. This isn't the Heneks' first experience with grassroots philanthropy. They have hosted Lemon Aid in their front yard each summer for the past nine years. This year, they took in over $11,000, which goes to local charities, such as Opportunity Knocks at the River Forest Community Center, which serves teens and adults with disabilities.
Kids Around the World isn't limited to playgrounds. In fact, the recycled playground component is relatively new. The first one was installed in July 2009 just outside Port Au Prince, Haiti.
At first, Clauson says, park districts were skeptical about donating their old equipment, until they were assured they would be protected from liability.
"Now they're calling us," he says. "Otherwise, it would all end up in a landfill."
Kids Around the World is located at 2424 Charles St., Rockford, Ill. 61108. Visit kidsaroundtheworld.com, call 815-229-8731, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.