The “experts” ranged from 10 to 13 years old and are all members of the Club receiving the playground.
Johnson’s King of the Field Foundation combined with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, KaBOOM! and The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City to bring the children together for a day of brainstorming before the play set is actually built in October.
KaBOOM! Project Manager Adam Sloey introduced himself, explaining it was his company that makes the equipment they will be playing on. Sloey then handed each child a sheet of paper on which to depict their dream playgrounds. Then he handed one to Johnson.
“I tried to draw a playground and a couple of kids started laughing because I am not a drawer, but I did the basic stuff: monkey bars, merry-go-round, tree house,” said Johnson. “They actually had a lot better ideas than I did.”
What he may have lacked in artistic ability, Johnson more than made up for in his ability to capture the children’s admiration. The third-year linebacker continuously shifted back and forth from a pair of tables, ensuring that everyone was able to draw alongside him while laughing and chatting.
Denisha Tate, Vice President of Operations at the Boys and Girls Club, had high praise for Chiefs players she’s worked with.
“They are absolutely incredible,” she said. “What’s entertaining for me is to watch them on the field play and be so tough, so fierce and so mean, and then to watch them with the kids. The kid in each of them always comes out.”
“In this environment, their whole persona changes,” she continued. “They’re not the big, intimidating players—they’re the big teddy bears with the kids. I’ve never experienced a situation where they couldn’t relate. They’ve always gotten in with the kids. They never stand-off and act like ‘Well, I’m here.’ They play.”
KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization specializing in linking communities and corporations together to build safe and accessible playgrounds, will provide the actual playground. Thrivent provides the financial backing and necessary man-power.
Thrivent is a non-profit Fortune 500 financial service that provides its members with the opportunity to give back to their communities. Thrivent’s Lutheran Community Service Specialist, Dennis Fuhrman, said people are already contacting him about their desire to help on build day, including an entire football team from Alma, Mo.
“They start with nothing out there and in about six hours, you’ve got a full playground,” said Fuhrman. “You can see what you’ve accomplished in a short period of time.”
This will mark the second playground built for The Boys and Girls Club under Johnson’s watch. The first was built on the notoriously blight East side of Kansas City. KaBOOM! and Thrivent Financial also assisted in that project.
“For us, it was that token of ‘We’re serious—we’re moving forward,’ this is our symbol of progress,” said Tate of the East side’s facility. “You keep looking at this brand new symbol of investment and realize there is more to come.”
Although the West side of the city by the Leslie Unit is a more fortunate area, designing and building this playground will still prove to be extremely valuable for the members of the Club—for more reasons than one.
“First of all, they love it,” said Tate. “For them to go home and share that story with siblings, neighbors or with their parents when they ask what they did at the Club today: ‘Oh we made playgrounds with Derrick Johnson.’ ‘You did what?!’ That’s a huge deal, it gives them such a confidence.”
Sykeya Horn, a Boys and Girls Club member and Joe Horn’s niece, said meeting new people was one of her favorite parts of the day. Although her uncle and her time at the Club have each provided the opportunity to meet many professional football players, the seventh grader was delighted to talk and design playgrounds with Johnson.
The Leslie Unit tallies nearly 30 playgrounds built by KaBOOM! under Sloey. Based out of Washington, DC, Sloey travels the country with KaBOOM!, helping the company achieve its goal of putting a great place to play in walking distance of every child in America.
“Every one is different,” said Sloey of the projects. “The kids everywhere you go have their own ideas and their own input. We take their input very seriously, as the playground experts - the ones who are going to be using the playground.”
None took them more seriously than the man in the jersey.
“I like kids, that’s the main part,” said Johnson. “It’s not like an act or ‘Aw man, I’ve got to go do this.’ I like this. I could do this all day. You look at them and you know you’ve got a lot of influence on them, especially being in my situation. For me to give back, talk to them and play with them—it could change a kids’ life. And to help influence a kid to do better in life? What more could you want?”