An initiative to rescue playgrounds from landfills has evolved into a non-profit focused on community development, which also serves as our District’s shipping arm.
From its warehouse in Edmonton, the Emmanuel Foundation has shipped refurbished playgrounds, and medical and educational equipment and supplies, to more than 40 countries, primarily in Central America, the Caribbean and Africa.
The non-profit also hosts meal-packaging events for shipments to other countries and for use by inner-city soup kitchens and food programs.
Executive director Lyle Johnson (RC of Sherwood Park) traces the history of the Emmanuel Foundation to 2002 when existing playgrounds were being decommissioned because they didn’t conform to new safety standards. The equipment that was being removed was slated for landfills.
A group that included Gary Debney, who had spent 30 years in parks and recreation and is the father-in law of Lyle’s son, approached the city of Calgary with a proposal to establish a foundation. The city could donate its surplus equipment to the foundation to be refurbished and shipped to countries where children had no access to playground equipment.
The city response was, “For sure. We don’t want to see the good equipment being bulldozed and put into landfills. Such a great waste.”
In 2004, Lyle joined the foundation’s board of directors and eventually became its executive director.
“In 2007, I came aboard part time as the executive director. Because the number of projects continued to increase, I went full time in 2009.”
In 2010, the foundation became the distribution centre for our District.
“We had HAWS (the Humanitarian Assistance Warehouse Society) and ADRA (the Alberta Development Relief Association-Aid International Society) come to us and say they were going to shut down and wondered if I would be interested in taking on the shipping role for our District,” Lyle says.
The Humanitarian Assistance Warehouse Society had been established a few years earlier by the District and was partnered with the Alberta Development Relief Association-Aid International Society.
“When HAWS started, the plan was that every club in the District would contribute $1,000 a year for this international service to carry on, but it just wasn’t happening,” Lyle says. “So HAWS felt it wasn’t sustainable as a District initiative and that was when it started to wind down.”
Initially, the Emmanuel Foundation was funded by personal donations, which remain one of its three sources of revenue.
“Personal donations, project-recovery donations and Rotary partnerships are our main sources of revenue,” Lyle says.
Since depending on donations from individuals was not sustainable, the foundation implemented a cost-recovery component to each project.
“This helps sustain sourcing the playgrounds, moving the playgrounds, removing them, refurbishing them and then looking after the storage and warehousing and shipping of them,” says Lyle.
“Currently, every one of our shipping projects usually has a $3,000 donation that is part of the project budget.”
Recognizing that playground equipment, alone, didn’t fill shipping containers, the foundation began to focus on community development.
“To make the shipments better value, it really made sense to put in quality goods with the playgrounds. That was a clever use of the donated dollars,” Lyle says.
“What we did is source humanitarian goods that the community or country we were shipping to could use.
“We are a province of prosperity. There is an incredible amount of surplus goods that are still very useful. That includes medical and education equipment and supplies,” says Lyle.
“We wanted to send goods that would help communities towards a better future. It would be something that would be more developmental, rather than emergency relief,” he says. “We still get the occasional emergency-relief projects, but it’s not a very high percentage of what we do. Our commitment is to be involved in projects that are community development. There’s a lot of agencies that do humanitarian aid, so we felt that we didn’t need to duplicate that as much.”
As the foundation became more involved in those types of projects, it changed “recreation and education,” in its name to “international community development.”
Recently, the foundation has started hosting meal-packaging events.
“We partnered officially with One Meal,” Lyle says. “These are great events that clubs can partner with. They can join together with a couple of other clubs. For 35 cents a meal we are able to put together a pretty nutritional package.
“It’s something that we can distribute not only overseas, but locally. We started to work with groups that work in the Northwest Territories and are able to send nutritional food up there,” Lyle says. “We’ve also been working with inner-city soup kitchens and food programs.”
In the future, the foundation hopes to provide resources to First Nation communities.
“We really are interested in building relationships with our Indigenous communities and perhaps providing our services here locally, both with playgrounds, and food nourishment,” Lyle says.