This story of hope begins with heartbreak. On a hot summer day in Washington, a 7-year-old girl named Iesha and her 4-year-old brother Clendon climbed into a car to play. The door locked behind them, and they perished from the heat. Normally such a story would have faded into the sad statistics that flow from our cities. But a reporter from The Washington Post dug into the reasons why these children were in the car in the first place. One conclusion: There were no parks or playgrounds within several blocks of where they lived.
Darell Hammond had just moved to Washington at the time the story was published. Hammond and his seven brothers and sisters grew up in a group home outside Chicago after his father left his family and Hammond's mother could no longer care for them on her own. He knew it easily could have been him in that car with one of his siblings - and also that this tragedy could have been avoided.
Hammond spent the previous year with City Year, organizing volunteers to build two playgrounds in Chicago's urban core. Using this experience, he went to the neighborhood where Iesha and Clendon lived and offered help. Within a few weeks, several hundred neighbors signed a petition to build a new playground. Then they came out to build it. Other neighborhoods took note. Within the year, Hammond launched KaBOOM!, whose mission is to "create great play spaces through the participation and leadership of communities," with the vision of putting them within walking distance of every child in America.
Since its launch in 1996, KaBOOM! has raised more than $200 million, organized millions of volunteers and led the construction of more than 2,000 playgrounds across North America. Nine years ago, it created a do-it-yourself "playground project planner" as a free resource for anyone wanting to build a playground using the KaBOOM! community engagement model. Last year, KaBOOM! built almost 200 playgrounds. Its model was used to help build hundreds more.
With a demand impossible to meet on its own, KaBOOM! looks for innovative ways to scale its vision. One key step: launching the Playful City USA program to recognize cities that make play a priority. This year, 151 cities were recognized across the country, including Albemarle, Creedmoor, Durham, Greenville, Hickory and Mount Holly in North Carolina. KaBOOM! also recently launched a free mobile app (Playgrounds!) to help people find and map playgrounds in their communities.
For our state to fulfill its potential, we need to nurture a new generation of social entrepreneurs who have the vision and know-how of Darell Hammond and those like him. Some innovative efforts to do exactly that are under way.
Among them, the Golden LEAF Scholars Leadership program stands out. As part of its mission to support economic development, the Golden LEAF Foundation has provided 7,859 college scholarships to students from former tobacco rich communities in the state. The foundation recently partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership (where we both are affiliated) to help these scholars apply their budding entrepreneurial leadership skills to improve the rural communities they call home.
These emerging leadership initiatives are inspiring.
Craig Barnes and Levi Williams, for example, are designing a mentorship program for black young males in Wilson County. Michael Robinson strives to work with local fishermen in Beaufort County to improve local and statewide distribution channels. Syntina Nesbitt wants to return to Johnston County and partner with the Women's Leadership Council to create a summer leadership program for young women. And the list goes on.
By this summer, some Golden LEAF scholars will be in professional internships. Others will venture forth with bold, bright ideas for social change.
Hopefully, the students will find enticing opportunities that encourage them to return and become leaders in rural and economically distressed North Carolina communities after graduation.
Sometimes it is in the face of tragedy or challenge that hope emerges. But when hope and dreams are translated to action by well-supported leaders, things can go boom.
Christopher Gergen is founding executive director of Bull City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and co-author of Life Entrepreneurs. Stephen Martin, a former business and education journalist, is a speechwriter at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership.