Years of preparation and hard work go a long way — sometimes all the way to the Olympics. While the golden hardware attracts the world’s greatest athletes to Rio, a collection of U.S. college students came to the city with a very different idea of winning: building a playground in one of Rio’s favelas.
“The Olympics are nice and all, but we’re all here together for a different cause,” Cleveland State University Sophomore Dory Turner said. “We’re here to offer this community something that every community should already have, so our hope is that they’re the real winners in this case.”
Traveling abroad to Brazil for two weeks in August, Turner and other college students from around the United States are teaming up with Community in Action Rio, a non-profit organization encouraging community development in Rio’s impoverished neighborhoods, to build a playground in Pavao Pavãozinho, one of the many favelas in Rio. The organization coordinates volunteer opportunities for anyone — including groups of college students — but this is the first playground project to come to life for the organization and the favela.
“So many people across the world are going to ignore this area and the favelas during the Olympics, and we want to make sure we’re changing that,” Turner said. “The people who live here have come out with open arms, and they’re really welcoming us here. It’s a great thing being done for some even greater people.”
Working with a group of more than 20 volunteers, Turner said the experience has been unlike what she had first anticipated. Although volunteering in one of the most disadvantaged communities of Rio, Turner said it’s important to offer a safe place for children to play — no matter the circumstances.
“Everyone has the right to a playground,” Turner said. “Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in environments full of opportunities and spaces to be kids, and that shapes who we are from a young age, I think. There are thousands of kids here without that right now, and it’s a really special opportunity for us that we’re helping provide it now.”
Also volunteering with the playground project, University of Texas Senior Solimar Serrano said working in the favela has provided time for reflection, but it’s also changed her perspective about favela life in Rio.
“We’re basically turning what was recently a trash pit into a place for kids to play,” Serrano said. “It’s almost surreal to be an environment like this, but there’s a special beauty in every face we meet in the favela community.”
Over 20,000 Brazilians call the Pavao Pavãozinho favela community home, with more than a quarter of those being under the age of 18, according to Community in Action. While the numbers of school-aged children are high, many don’t attend school past the ninth grade. The organization hopes that projects like this will encourage those in the favela to obtain new educational resources and motivations by interacting with foreign students and volunteers.
Working long days — and sometimes into the nights — American volunteers are not alone in their efforts. Local residents in the favela community have offered support building the playground structure and even opening their homes for rest and food.
“When you see all the people here so eager and excited to help us, it’s actually really exciting to know this playground will go towards a greater good,” Serrano said.
Offering help wherever he can, Socrates Santana, a Brazilian student and internationally acclaimed body surfer, said it’s been a special experience working on the playground, especially since it’s in the neighborhood he knows so well.
“This is where I grew up; it’s where I have my roots,” Santana said. “I want to help however I can because I know this is something I would have loved as a kid growing up here.”
Santana added that working with other college students has been an opportunity to improve his English skills but also to get to know other like-minded young people.
“I love helping people, and I know the other students here have that same focus too,” Santana said. “I travel a lot now, thanks to my successes body surfing, but this is way to stay grounded. It shows the visiting volunteers that there is more to (the favela) than poverty, and it shows me that there are many ways to provide even more opportunities and love to my community.”
Project leader Sam Kornhauser organized the trip and said his father’s Brazilian roots are what inspired him to come to Rio and build the playground. The New York native has been designing and building playgrounds since 1971, and Kornhauser said the purpose for the favela goes far beyond the swings and slides.
“Poverty for favela youth is not just lack of money,” Kornhauser said. “It’s a lack of self-respect, sense of meaning. This project is part of a larger initiative to revitalize this area of the favela community and bring attention to a local non-profit organization we’ve been able to work with.”
To further support community development, the Community in Action team paired up with small grassroots NGO, Pavao Acima. The organization hopes the playground project will help change perspectives about how open space is used in the favela while also encouraging community members to take ownership once the playground is complete.
“It’s been really hard working on this project with the logistics and the circumstances in the area, but it’s not impossible,” Kornhauser said. “This project is not about the volunteers coming halfway across the world. It’s about what we’re able to do here and offer once we’re gone. I’m proud of all the work all these students and volunteers have been able to contribute, and I think once this thing is done, it will help bring a brighter light on this area and in this community.”
As for Turner, she said she couldn’t agree with Kornhauser more, and once going back to school, Turner said she wants to make sure she tells “the true story” about the favela where she was able to work.
“There’s no lack of culture or love or community here, and I think that gets lost in a lot of the things we here about places like this back home,” Turner said. “The playground was really more of a way for me to meet and experience all of these people, the locals and the other volunteers. The favela is actually the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I think I’ve actually fallen in love with it. I’ll miss it, for sure.”
Casey Smith is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.