Paul Bierhaus isn’t your typical Plymouth retiree. Although he’s been active with the Wayzata Evangelical Free Church, the St. Louis Park Rotary and the Rockford, Ill.-based organization called Kids Around the World for countless years, he says he “wanted be sure he was doing something meaningful” with his free time. So last year, the 67-year-old Bierhaus traveled to Glogow, Poland, to teach English in a summer program his church was involved with.
During his stay in Glogow, he was asked for advice by the local police force. (Bierhaus is a retired narcotics officer, so he has some experience here.) Poland had been under communist rule until 1989, and even though two decades had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Iron Curtain), “no one trusted the police,” he says. Wanting to change this trend, the police “came to me and asked what would be the most important step they could take to gain the trust of the citizens. I told them, ‘Earn the hearts of the children, and the rest will follow. Build a playground.’”
Bierhaus instantly thought “playground” because of his 11-year term on the board of Kids Around the World, an organization that takes outdated play equipment, retrofits it with new parts to make sure it’s safe, and reassembles it elsewhere for the cost of parts. After explaining the program to the police and the mayor, the city of Glogow jumped at the chance to receive a playground through Kids Around the World.
In the United States, we might not immediately understand the significance of constructing a playground in Poland. “Frankly,” Bierhaus says, “if you live in Plymouth like I do, it’s easy to take playgrounds for granted because there’s practically one every other block.” But in Glogow, there hasn’t been a single one constructed since at least 1989, and any that do remain are outdated and unsafe. “So for us to bring a usable playground into the community—well, it’s huge,” he says.
When Bierhaus returned stateside, he enlisted the help of the parks and recreation department in Plymouth and the St. Louis Park Rotary to track down the equipment that would make the trip. Parks and rec soon zeroed in on the playground at Shiloh Park, and when the city of Woodbury caught wind of the goings on it donated a second playground from Colby Lake Park. Bierhaus then rounded up what he calls his “cadre of retirees” who donated their time and energy to uproot the equipment. From there, it was shipped to Rockford, Ill., to be updated and to await shipment to Glogow. The Glogow police force happily volunteered to reassemble the playground upon its arrival this past January.
Bierhaus is excited to see how the playground changes the atmosphere of Glogow. For reference, he speaks of a playground that Kids Around the World assembled in Kyrgyzstan.
“Kyrgyz and Russians have lived together for more than a century, but they essentially ignore each other. They just walk past each other on the sidewalks,” he says. “But we brought in a playground, and all of a sudden everyone was there, playing together and laughing.” He also knows that a playground is a universal place where kids have fun—even kids that have never seen a playground. “We assembled a playground in Uganda where no one had ever seen such a thing. There wasn’t even a word for it. We just looked like a bunch of crazy guys putting together some big contraption. And yet, as soon as the equipment was ready, the kids were all over it. Somehow, all kids know: A slide is a slide, a swing is a swing.”
Since Bierhaus helped to secure the Plymouth playground, he has seen local interest in the Kids Around the World program explode. The cities of St. Paul, Rosemount, St. Louis Park, Bloomington and Maple Grove have all come forward wanting to donate equipment. “Soon I’ll need to hire someone just to field calls,” he says, only half-joking. But even though he’s turned into quite the busy retiree, he’s overjoyed with the way things are going. “I get to network, I get to meet people. All the hats that I have worn are coming into play. I’m doing something meaningful.”
To volunteer locally, contact Paul Bierhaus at PoBierhaus@aol.com.