A Playful Approach to Community Service

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Nearly two decades ago, Sandra Gordon, former director of public relations for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), was looking for ways to educate the public about AAOS members. Research showed that people knew very little about orthopedic surgeons — and when they did think of them, it was as high-tech practitioners. But actually, Gordon said, orthopedic surgeons are high-touch, caring doctors. “They’re the ones who take care of children who break their legs on playgrounds.”

AAOS was already working on a public-education campaign about playground safety. So, Gordon thought, why not invite attendees at the AAOS Annual Meeting — the largest in the world for orthopedic medical professionals — to build a model playground that is safe and wheelchair-accessible in the host destination? The association then would leave the playground behind as a permanent gift to the city, as well as a lasting illustration of what AAOS members care about.

Designing a project at the intersection of issues that resonate deeply with AAOS members and that also serve communities turned out to have incredible staying power. Since 2000, AAOS members have built 17 playgrounds, one at each of its annual meetings, in cities ranging from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.  AAOS’s latest playground — built in one day — was at Central Avenue Elementary School in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando, which hosted the AAOS 2016 Annual Meeting at the Orange County Convention Center. The project was designed with the help of local children, who drew crayon pictures of their ideas of a dream playground.

The “Safe and Accessible Playground Build” program has been a success from the start, Gordon said, in large part because it tracks so closely with AAOS members’ interests. Many orthopedic patients are wheelchair-bound or have other disabilities that make the average playground they encounter unusable, so each project emphasizes accessibility as well as safety. “Our members went crazy over it,” Gordon said. “Everybody wants to be involved.” In fact, every year the event draws more willing volunteers than AAOS can handle — more than 200 surgeons, nurses, industry partners, exhibitors, and local community members came together for the six-hour-long project in Kissimmee.

From the beginning, AAOS has partnered with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization that creates play spaces for urban children. KaBOOM! identifies potential sites and partners in each destination, while AAOS makes the final selection based on factors including how well-equipped local organizations are to maintain the new playground once it’s built. AAOS also secures dozens of industry sponsors, many of whom support the project year after year.

Every detail matters, according to Gordon, from choosing the right local partners, to arranging buses for transportation, to designing t-shirts and banners. “The entire project,” she said, “is totally about logistics.” One key to success is making sure that there is enough work for volunteers, including a variety of side projects such as painting, planting flowers, and building picnic tables. “You’ve got to keep people busy,” Gordon said. “Nothing is worse than having a lot of people standing around — particularly surgeons.”

The project draws a lot of media attention Gordon said. Reporters love the idea that orthopedic surgeons are building playgrounds using the same kinds of tools — saws and hammers — that they use in the operating room. “Plus, [the surgeons] are the ones who take care of kids who get hurt on playgrounds,” Gordon said. “It’s perfect for us.”

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