Utah nonprofit uses playtime to shape future for Ghanians

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SALT LAKE CITY — A little ingenuity goes a long way — especially for thousands of children in Ghana.

In rural areas where hundreds of students attend school, there’s little chance that the schools will receive power for decades. When the sun goes down nightly around 6 p.m., homework can’t be completed until the following day. There are no overhead lights, no illuminated computer screens, no lamps with cords running from the wall. This is where a Utah nonprofit organization comes in.

“It’s an interesting story, spending 18 months as [an LDS] missionary in Ghana … we were visiting villages that were not very modern at all, even by Ghanian standards. I’d go in these little buildings, look around and say, ‘How does anybody ever learn anything here?’ That started my interest to see if there’s something we could do to increase educational opportunity,” said Ben Markham, founder of Empower Playgrounds.

Markham had an idea to see if kids could generate enough power to provide some lighting while playing. He sketched out early designs of playground equipment on the back of an envelope, and that got the wheels turning.

“A child at play, 10 to 12 years old, can put out about 60 watts of sustainable energy for 10 to 20 minutes. Well, by the time you get that 60 watts through the electronics control and into a battery and then back out to charge something, you’re really only dealing with about 30 watts. So you need a piece of playground equipment where multiple kids are inputting energy,” Markham explained.

The answer? A merry-go-round.

A crew installs an Empower Playground. (Photo: Stace Hall/KSL)
A crew installs an Empower Playground. (Photo: Stace Hall/KSL)

As the children play during recess, they generate electricity that powers portable LED lanterns. They take the lanterns home, flip on the light, and study time can then be anytime.

Years have passed since those initial renderings, and Markham’s dream has now become reality for dozens of schools throughout the African country. He’s established a nonprofit called Empower Playgrounds. They raise funds from Utah, but they do nearly all their work in Ghana. A merry-go-round once took two months to construct and install, but with a new partnership out of Pennsylvania, Markham’s two full-time Ghanian employees receive high-quality, factory-grade parts. They can install a new apparatus in one morning.

It’s an effort that is taking place 7,000 miles from Utah, but one that Markham said means the world.

“Almost every night when I go to bed, I say, ‘There are almost 8,000 kids in Ghana right now that have light to study that wouldn’t have if we hadn’t taken these actions over the last 10 years.’ It’s an extremely satisfying, good feeling.”

If you’d like to get involved or contribute to Empower Playgrounds, visit their website.


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Stace Hall


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