The neighborhood playground is a critical asset that helps make communities resilient places where kids can thrive and residents can connect. But in many rural communities across the country, factors like physical distance, countywide recreation policies, and the lack of a local tax base can limit children’s ability to access these spaces and the benefits they generate for health and well-being. This fact gains even more urgency when considering the deep disparities in rural childhood health outcomes.

Through decades of work partnering with rural communities, KABOOM! has come to understand that location is critically important in shaping the opportunities and barriers that kids and communities experience.

Addressing Health Outcomes with Playspace Equity

Playspace equity ensures every child has access to playspaces that yield critical outcomes for child health, development, learning and social and emotional well-being—regardless of factors like race, ethnicity, or family income. KABOOM!, a national nonprofit, is working to achieve this vision.

For over 23 years, KABOOM! has worked with communities to transform 17,000 playspaces, engage more than 1.5 million community members, and expand access to playspaces for 11 million kids. The community is at the heart of the process, with residents and kids engaged throughout the design, construction, and maintenance phases to ensure the final playspace reflects their unique needs and desires. According to a survey, 94% percent of KABOOM!-led respondents believe their playground project helped strengthen relationships among neighborhood residents and among community partners.

This collaborative approach can inspire optimism with work towards a collective project that benefits future generations. The process builds community and promotes belonging and a sense of ownership of the playspace. KABOOM!’s engagement process in rural communities focuses on the existing assets that each community has and supports a greater vision for what they would like to see for kids in their community.

Playspaces: Supporting Broader Strategies to Support Rural Communities

Last year, KABOOM! teamed up with The Colorado Health Foundation and the rural community of Trinidad, Colo. to complete a project at the Las Animas Fairgrounds. Trinidad is a small rural community with just over 8,000 residents, 20% of whom experience poverty. Throughout the engagement process, local partners cited high rates of obesity and the mental health impacts of social isolation and increased time using technology as top concerns. 

Together with the community, KABOOM! helped build an Adventure Course for teens, which now serves more than 1,000 kids annually. The Adventure Course provides a community gathering space too, which is critically important in a location where public space is limited or harder to access. After-school programs and home school students use the space often, and the local fire department can be spotted on the course during training exercises.

In Bastrop County, Texas, KABOOM! worked with a local nonprofit, Bastrop County Cares, to build a playspace in the Stoney Point community. The support from multiple agencies and resident leadership allowed this project to be part of a greater effort to develop county spaces for families in this area. Through the funding from the St. David’s Foundation, KABOOM! was able to support the community and build on the existing coalitions they had formed. The community reports a measurable difference in play activities, with more than 90% of respondents to a survey of build volunteers affirming that the amount of time kids are playing has increased.

In Western New York, KABOOM! partnered with Rural Revitalization Corporation, City of Salamanca, and the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. The City of Salamanca has a population of just over 5,000 residents, with a little over 20% experiencing poverty. The city sits on top of the Tribal lands of Seneca Nation and, due to lack of funding and a smaller tax base, has found it difficult to secure support for many capital projects like park infrastructure. Here, KABOOM! helped build a state-of-the-art Adventure Course that now provides more than 950 children with a safe opportunity to play. Six months after the build was complete, playground participation increased by 20%.

A KABOOM!/funder partnership is well positioned to respond to a number of challenges faced by funders looking to engage with rural communities:

  1. The KABOOM! model develops a cohort of large numbers of volunteers—many of whom have had no contact with the funder in the past. A successful KABOOM! build can be a springboard for other community-led community development projects.
  2. The local site sponsor, whether a church, community based-nonprofit or a rural Housing Authority (as examples), often expands the funder’s group of interested and eligible grantees and, consequently, responds to the frequently heard funder’s lament of “There is no one to fund.”
  3. The model is scalable and creates a level of interest in surrounding rural communities.
  4. The funder is the administrative intermediary with KABOOM! and can mitigate the challenges faced by rural communities in accessing outside resources.

In our conversations with rural communities, residents often express frustration that national programs don’t have anything for them—most best practice models are built upon urban density. The KABOOM! partnership provides an opportunity for a very active rural engagement that is scaled to the communities’ needs and culture—all in the context of a community-led design and build process. It’s an example of how funders and donors can bring resources to rural places that are more than the sum of the parts. The best rural philanthropy supports a sustainable community ownership structure for all investments.

This article was authored by Allen Smart and Lysa Ratliff, Acting CEO and VP, Partnership Development at KABOOM! and originally appeared on Giving Compass in September 2020.

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