Creating Healthy Change One Community at a Time

“There are no swings, no slides, no playgrounds at the Stoddert Terrace housing complex. Some children cool themselves in plastic swimming pools next to streets where cars careen up and down. Others ride bicycles across desert lawns that haven’t known grass in years. Still others take turns pushing one another in rusty shopping carts over ground so covered by broken blue and green glass it almost looks decorated, like the floor of a fish aquarium. Danger feels imminent, expected, sanctioned.” (1)

At some point, each of us has been eyewitnesses to an injustice or infraction. While it is common to hear grumbles over the country’s current state of affairs, many grievances about the economy, health care, or education reform fail to make it beyond the dinner table or water cooler. But a remarkable few do stand on behalf of the issue at hand. What is it that turns these individuals from passive bystanders into everyday heroes? How do the simple actions of children, parents, and community members catapult us into movement?

In questioning this issue I began reaching out to communities who, in their own small way, have contributed to a much larger societal issue, as in the case highlighted here, which began with something as simple as building a playground.

Last October, I was fortunate to participate in a KaBOOM! community build right here in Washington, D.C.(2) KaBOOM! uses the Asset-Based Community Development model to assist communities in building playspaces across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It is through the participation and leadership of everyday people that communities are able to create playspaces that serve both to increase children’s access to play, as well as inspire communities to take on much larger projects in the future.

While I have participated in amazing community builds in the past, I felt a particular connection to this project. Having lived in D.C. for several years, I was all too aware of the perception of Southeast as an area that is plagued by poverty and crime. Though in some instances these concerns may be real, they often overshadow the positive attributes of the community. On the day of the build I talked with many of the project leaders and community members. What unfolded was a vivid portrait of how small steps can lead to dramatic changes.

Founded in 1997, the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education (SHIRE) (3) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of health and wellness for all people. Working to eradicate health disparities and aid vulnerable populations in attaining optimal health, in 2006 SHIRE convened the Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Collaborative in Ward 8, an historically disadvantaged community in the District of Columbia. One of the strategies employed by the organization was a campaign to get children outdoors and active. SHIRE held focus groups for families and a common theme began to emerge: before families could be convinced to send their children outside to play, the issues of safety and environmental hazards needed to be addressed. Community members spoke of the trash and drug paraphernalia that littered their outdoor spaces. Residents shuttled neighborhood kids to parks by car to avoid having them cross over the railroad tracks on foot while trying to get to the playground. The problem was clear: the children of this community had no safe place to play.

Flash forward to 2009, when SHIRE teamed up with the People’s Co-Op in the Elvans Road community. Together they worked to build a community playground, reduce their crime rate, and confront issues of health and obesity. A grant application was submitted and awarded to the community. The initial planning committee consisted of 19 families, residents, and community members. They worked together to raise additional funding, recruit volunteers, and pool community resources. Even the youngest members of the community were enabled to participate in the process, conducting a “Design Day” in which they drew their dream playground. Those same drawings would later inform the type of equipment, color scheme, and landscaping in the final playground erected by community volunteers.

While the need for a safe place to play was the initial catalyst for change in this community, it resulted in a multitude of positive outcomes. A resident of Elvans Road Co-Op for 47 years, Ms. Clara reported that the project had a unifying effect. Adults in the neighborhood were brought together around a common cause and the dynamics within the community began to change. They went from having only a handful of attendees at community meetings to having a solid group of regular residents asking, “What can we take on next?” The residents have started a community newsletter and are in the process of planning a community garden to be designed and built by the local community.

Though the changes that have occurred in the Elvan Roads neighborhood are remarkable, they did not come absent hard work and dedication to the cause. The initial proposal to build a playground was not met with overwhelming support by all members of the community. There was a small group of individuals who felt the project would never come to fruition. Reasons ranged from not being able to raise the money or recruit enough volunteers to the children not really wanting to use the playspace. Still, the planning committee persisted. When the build day arrived, 333 people stood on a vacant lot ready and willing to get the job done. They assembled equipment, tightened bolts, and shoveled mulch. Just six hours later, they stood before their new playground.

Today the playground stands as a primary-colored reminder of what the community was able to accomplish. Yet, it also represents the previously unknown resources available to this Ward 8 community. Construction crews, military men and women, church members, universities, businesses, and children alike all heeded the call to lend their support to the project.

Each of these individuals gave of their time, money, and labor to make a difference in their community. Why? Dr. Shields-Harris, director of the Children’s Health Project of D.C., summed it up well, as she mixed concrete by hand. “I believe in the importance of play and I prescribe play for my patients. How can I ask them to go out and play if I know that there aren’t any safe places to play in the community?”

On some level we all want to contribute to a greater good, to stand up for something we believe in, and—as in this case—provide a healthier childhood for our children and future generations. So whether it be a playground, a community garden, or working toward some larger policy change, the individuals who are able to transform injustices into action can do so because they have adopted Ghandi’s inspiring mantra, “We must be the change we seek to see in the world!”


1. Lonnae O’Neal Parker. (1995, August 04). No place to play: At Stoddert Terrace, deaths of 2 children are seen as painful proof of a city’s neglect. The Washington Post, Final Edition.
2. KaBOOM!
3. Summit Health Institute for Research and Education.


As a leading nonprofit health care research and consulting institute dedicated to improving human health, Altarum encourages open discussion and debate about the many challenges in health care today. All postings to the Health Policy Forum (whether from employees or those outside the Institute) represent the views of the individual authors and/or organizations and do not necessarily represent the position, interests, strategy, or opinions of Altarum Institute. Altarum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. No posting should be considered an endorsement by Altarum of individual candidates, political parties, opinions, or policy positions.

Add new comment

Click to Print