For 25 years, this Rockford-based nonprofit has provided playground equipment, nutritious meals and Christian teaching to children in some of the poorest corners of the globe. Discover the driving forces behind this mission to help hundreds of kids around the world.
Little kids in the African country of Zambia are about to be in for a big surprise.
Three large, colorful playgrounds loaded with slides, swings, monkey bars and other kid favorites are sitting in a large warehouse in Rockford. But soon, they’ll make their way to the poverty-stricken country. The kids who’ll play on the fun equipment will also be served healthy and hearty nutritious meals with the help of Kids Around The World (KATW).
“These playgrounds could be going to a wide variety of places like a school, church, park or a hospital,” says Jim Rosene, president of KATW. “This is our calling – this is what God’s called on us to do.”
KATW, a faith-based nonprofit, has been providing activities, nourishment and learning materials to poverty-stricken kids around the world for 25 years. Since the organization’s inception in 1994, the goal has been to provide an opportunity for children to be kids, no matter their circumstances.
KATW also partners with organizations and foundations around the world that help provide equipment and supplies for children, including Rotary International Foundation, Salvation Army, World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse.
“Think about what some of these kids have seen or experienced,” Rosene says. “They’ve probably seen things you wouldn’t imagine and wouldn’t want to imagine. We want these kids to realize their Christian faith.”
KATW reaches kids three ways: through playground equipment, food and training to teach the bible.
“That’s all we do is three things, but in doing those three things, we’ve been able to see some wonderful growth,” Rosene says. “We’re privately funded and we’re surrounded by wonderful support from around the world through people’s time and prayers.”
Serving Kids for 25 Years
KATW began when Denny and Evie Johnson came up with a plan to help Rockford’s sister cities around the world. (Sister cities allow for average citizens to engage in diplomatic relationships). One of Rockford’s many sister cities is Brovary, Ukraine.
The relationship between Rockford and Brovary started from a meeting with a visiting soccer team from Kiev, Ukraine. Officials from Kiev suggested a sister city arrangement with Brovary, a Kiev suburb. Rockford city officials made the agreement official in 1995, a year after KATW got off the ground.
As a gift to Brovary, KATW built the first of two playgrounds for the city’s children.
“At the conclusion of that project, we thought we could continue the playgrounds with local churches and their communities,” Rosene says. “We went to Brovary again in 1995 and worked with a church to put the second playground up. We wanted people to know that their churches love children and they want to provide opportunities for them.”
The playgrounds were created with the help of Webbs Norman, the former executive director of the Rockford Park District who died in January.
“He was part of the first group of people that Denny pulled together,” Rosene says. “He was always involved with the parks here. The whole idea came from Denny’s vision of what he wanted and Webbs was able to help with any ideas. Webbs helped get this off the ground.”
Once the Johnsons realized the impact and benefit the playgrounds had on the kids, they started looking at other foreign cities they could help.
“We’d ask the leaders of each city if we could do this and we’d honor whatever their wishes were,” Rosene says. “Through that, we built relationships with these countries and we’ve continued to grow. We want to teach kids the value and the importance of play.”
The organization built another playground in the late 1990s, and then progressed to building one per year. Today, KATW has built roughly 840 playgrounds worldwide and completes about 100 each year.
KATW continues to expand, so the nonprofit now has multiple offices across the country. In addition to the main headquarters in Rockford, there are also offices in southern California, Oregon, Texas and Pennsylvania.
KATW has 26 staff members and 12 of them work in the Rockford office, but they also have plenty of international help.
“We have staff in Ecuador that cover Latin America, a Kenyan National that covers most of East Africa, and we have a couple that covers Southeast Asia,” Rosene says. “We’re trying to provide some hope and joy for kids around the world. This all started right here in Rockford.”
Creating Enjoyment For Kids
Play is important to a child’s emotional, physical, social and creative growth. When a playground full of color and excitement is installed in a poor area, the community is reinvigorated, Rosene says. It allows kids to play in a positive and healthy environment.
No matter a child’s race or background, play is an unspoken language between all children, so everyone can get involved.
“We’re finding more and more materials that talk about the value of play and the total development of a child,” Rosene says. “We have so many playgrounds here in the states, but there is a tremendous need in other parts of the world. They create an environment for kids to be loved and accepted.”
KATW has installed playgrounds in 70 countries, but there’s no time to rest, because more kids are waiting for their chance to slide down a slippery slide or play on a swing. Monkey bars, slides, swings and other large, colorful equipment occupy a large, 47,000-square-foot warehouse that KATW uses. Rosene calls this sprawling warehouse “a blessing.”
Sam Snyder, a warehouse associate, walks around with a clipboard and photos showing how each playground is supposed to look. He makes sure every playground has all the correct pieces.
“In addition to Zambia, we also have equipment getting ready to head to Kenya,” Snyder says. “This playground gives kids a chance to play and have fun. We also send photos with the playgrounds so people can know how it looks when it goes back in the ground.”
In the beginning, KATW gave out brand new playgrounds. Over time, Rosene says the newer playgrounds began to get expensive, especially during the recession.
“We always had new playgrounds, but people didn’t want to fund them overseas because we had enough problems over here,” Rosene says. “That’s when we were introduced to a concept about refurbishing playgrounds.”
The phrase, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” definitely hits home for KATW. They’ve been fixing up old playground equipment from park districts, schools and churches.
“We’ll pull out their old playground and bring it here and refurbish it, repaint it and put new hardware on it with the help of volunteers,” Rosene says. “The playgrounds look brand new when they’re finished.”
Those volunteers come from a variety of places, including YouthBuild Rockford, a program for students who are between the ages 16-24. These students come from low-income communities; they’re high school dropouts and unemployed.
“These students were challenged by the requirements of local high schools and decided to participate in YouthBuild to get help with their GEDs,” Rosene says. “Part of being involved is they have to serve with a local nonprofit. We get anywhere between 10 or 15 of them to come up here to paint each week.”
For YouthBuild students who want to volunteer but lack the skills, KATW provides welding classes through a partnership with Rock Valley College. After the students finish six weeks of training, they work in the KATW warehouse to practice what they learned before entering the workforce.
“Two young people went through the program and have jobs right now as welders,” Rosene says. “It’s very rewarding for everyone involved.”
Food For Thought
Providing playgrounds is not enough for KATW. The same kids who need play are also not getting proper nourishment.
About eight years ago, KATW started OneMeal, a mobile food-packing program that feeds children worldwide. Local churches, schools, businesses and civic groups even host food packing events at their own locations or at the KATW warehouse.
The packaged food is shipped and passed out to international partners who feed children in desperate need of help. OneMeal has fed children in 18 countries, including the U.S.
“These children need the nourishment and being a Christian organization, we felt it was part of our task,” Rosene says. “Christ has asked us to take care of orphans and widows and be able to provide nourishment. This is what God has called on us to do.”
The children eat OneMeal, a protein-rich meal that has red lentils, rice, six dehydrated vegetables and PhytoBlend, which consists of plant-sourced vitamins and minerals. Each package has six servings and can be prepared in less than 20 minutes just by adding it to boiling water.
Each box of OneMeal contains 36 packages, enough to feed 216 children. Each meal only costs about a quarter.
“It’ll end up like a soupy rice once it’s cooked, but you can also put in a meat, protein or whatever spices you want,” says Coleman Nelson, a OneMeal event manager. “The package might look small, but once it hits the water, it’ll expand.”
KATW gave out 5 million servings to kids last year, but Nelson wants to top that by creating 8 million meals this year.
“The needs continue to mount up and the opportunity to feed these kids continues to grow each year,” he says.
Learning About The Bible
Since KATW is a Christian organization, it’s only right that students learn about God and the bible. KATW teaches the word of God and the story of Jesus in a fun and interactive way.
“We’re all about helping people experience the love that Christ has for them,” Rosene says.
Students are taught through StoryClubs, an environment where children learn the stories of the Bible through creative learning techniques. Students learn about the birth of Jesus, the childhood of Jesus and the Last Supper, among plenty of other things. At the conclusion of each lesson, students are asked discovery questions such as why God put a story in the Bible, or if they could imagine being in the story.
Through these questions and interactions, kids become active participants in God’s redemptive story.
“Most people in the world learn through oral means,” Rosene says. “At the end of each lesson, we always ask the students what they think or what they would do in certain situations. We want these students to learn their Christian faith while having fun at the same time.”
Faith has been part of the organization’s mission since the beginning, when KATW distributed workbooks in Brovary.
“When we built the second playground, we asked the mayor if we could distribute bibles to students of the city,” Rosene says. “The mayor was part of the former Soviet Union Party, but because we were building a relationship with him, he let us. We distributed more than 14,000 picture book bibles to kids. We had three teams that went into the schools and passed out pencils and handed out bibles.”
Rosene is thrilled to see how KATW has grown over the years. However, he says there’s plenty more work to do.
“We want to spread the word of who we are,” he says. “What we do is relational, so we want to develop relationships and continue talking to people.”
He also credits the many generous volunteers around the world who’ve helped KATW remain successful for a quarter of a century.
“Tens of thousands of people have volunteered with us over the years,” he says. “Whether they’re on a playground build, part of our training, or at a OneMeal packing event, they enjoy volunteering because they sense they’re doing something meaningful.”
KATW is always looking for the next location to create new opportunities for children, whether it’s in the U.S. or on the other side of the world.
“We’re still dreaming and planning,” Rosene says. “We want to do more. We want to feed more children and share God’s word with more children, and we want to build more playgrounds. When you enjoy doing something, you want to continue being involved in it.”