The fact that kids seem to have an inordinate amount of energy is indisputable. What if this energy could somehow be harnessed and turned into electricity? That was a question that Ben Markham, a retired Vice President of Engineering at ExxonMobil asked himself a few years ago. The result? Empower Playgrounds Inc., non-profit company that has transformed the lives of thousands of young kids in Ghana with a simple yet brilliant idea!
It all began in 2004 when Ben retired from his corporate job and decided it was time to give back to the world. He took up a volunteer position in the North African country of Ghana for eighteen months. While there, he noticed that the students in the rural areas had no playground equipment or access to electricity either at school or home.
Given the country's location just north of the equator, the days and nights in Ghana are divided almost equally throughout the year - which means 12 hours of nights so dark, which the country ranks as Class 1 on the Bortle scale. This is ideal for stargazers since it allows them to observe the Milky Way with their naked eye. However, it is not as fun for the young kids that are forced to spend half their lives in darkness.
The retired engineer's mind immediately started to think about how he could capture the kinetic energy that the kids spent running around and turn it into electricity. When he returned to the United States, he began brainstorming with the engineering faculty and students at Utah's Brigham Young University and together, they came up with the perfect solution - creating playground equipment that would harness kid energy and transform it into electricity. Empower Playgrounds Inc. (EPI) was born!
The first piece of equipment they devised was one that can be used by multiple kids at that same time - A Merry-Go-Round. Collaborating with local Accra-based Anno Engineering to produce the equipment and the Ghanaian Ministry of Education, the team began testing the concept in select schools, in 2007.
The non-profit organization initially relied on hand modified LED camping lanterns that could be recharged by the EPI system. However in 2009, US-based Energizer company heard about the program and decided to not only help them develop a smart LED lantern that is custom built for Empower Playgrounds, but also, donate as many as needed. Fitted with a computer chip that charges both the custom battery pack and operates the unique LED lights, the lantern has a shelf life of five years and can provide the equivalent of a 25-watt light bulb for 40 hours, before requiring a recharge.
So far, 31 schools have been lucky enough to get access to an EPI Merry-Go-Round and 50 advanced LED lanterns each, which the students are allowed to carry home every night. However, because there can be as many as 200 kids in a school, the students are divided into 'lantern groups' and encouraged to study together using one lamp.
As if this is not impressive enough, EPI equipment has also become a practical science lab adding to the curriculum that until now, had all been theoretical. Teachers can now use the playground to demonstrate concepts in mechanics, physics, energy transfer and much more. And that's not all. While schools are free, the poor Ghanaians still have to spend what for them is a significant amount of money, on uniforms and school supplies - This means most parents opt to send just their boys to school. To try to change that, EPI appoints the few girls that are lucky enough to attend school as 'lantern leaders' highlighting their role as independent leaders and more importantly, 'light' bringers.
The best part is that at a cost of $10,000USD, the playground equipment is relatively affordable to install. While this may sound like a significant amount of money, it equates to about $10 USD a year to bring electricity to 200 kids for five years! And while for most of us it means just 'light,' to these children it is a life-changer, the benefits of which can only be described as . . . Priceless! To read more about this incredible undertaking and find out how you or your school can help go to empowerplaygrounds.org.