May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Who would know better than Darell Hammond that underprivileged children need a safe place to run free and play? After all, Hammond spent most of his own childhood, along with his seven siblings, in an Illinois orphanage. Now he’s making up for lost time. As head of the Washington, D.C.-based charity KaBOOM! he has made building playgrounds for poor kids his mission. “Play is the work of children,” explains Hammond, 28, whose group has constructed 134 playgrounds in four years, from Victoria, Texas, to Belfast, Northern Ireland. “What if they’re unemployed?”

Hammond—who entered the orphanage at age 4 after his parents split up and his overburdened mother suffered a breakdown—helped build his first playground when he pitched in to assist a friend’s mother, a community volunteer, during his junior year at Wisconsin’s Ripon College. In 1995, while working for a nonprofit group in Columbus, Ohio, he built two more. That’s when he realized he had found his calling. “It’s always more than a playground,” he observes. “It’s about hope.”

After moving to Washington later that year to toil for another nonprofit organization, Hammond—who “has more toys than anyone I know,” according to girlfriend Kate Becker, 35, an executive for a community service group—founded KaBOOM! with pal Dawn Hutchison. Buying materials with funds wheedled from corporations, plus $5,000 from proceeds designated by Hillary Clinton from the sale of her book It Takes a Village, he embarked on his building spree.

The playgrounds cost an average of $50,000 each and are erected in a single day by volunteers—some of whom get more from their efforts than just a warm feeling. Says Hammond: “I’ve been invited to two weddings of people who met doing this.”

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