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Interview with ‘Swings for Dreams – Landscape Architecture Without Borders’ Founder Michael Aguas

Interview with ‘Swings for Dreams – Landscape Architecture Without Borders’ Founder Michael Aguas

I remember the freedom I felt when I first learned to swing and the exhilaration I experienced when my stomach was tickled flying skyward with my friends.  We would often launch ourselves, then run to the monkey bars to race through an obstacle course we created for ourselves.  We would swing and laugh for hours.  It was imaginative, fun, and creative.  I never assumed that the availability of safe play equipment was a luxury or even a privilege.  Play was simply a part of being a kid – our primary occupation. Remember those days?

Allow me to introduce you to Michael Aguas and his latest project at Swings for Dreams – Landscape Architecture without Borders.  Swings for Dreams is a grassroots nonprofit that believes safe play should be accessible for kids worldwide. Unfortunately, many kids living in third world and developing countries lack access to safe and free outdoor play and the leftover spaces where they do play are often in dangerously makeshift areas.

Want to help make a difference?  Swings for Dreams just launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $30,000 to fund the construction costs for a safe outdoor playspace for a primary school located in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, and they need our help.  Check out the promo video below and my interview with Michael after the jump:

I recently met the Swings for Dreams team for a meal, then sat down with Michael afterward to ask him a few questions about the inspiration behind his project and his hopes for Swings for Dreams.  Check it out below…

Hi Michael, thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions for Land8.  Let’s start with some basics. Where’ya from… and how did you discover Landscape Architecture? 

I was born and raised in Fontana, California, but lived a portion of my earlier years in Redlands, California. I’m not your typical college student…by age I guess. I went back to college after the company I worked for five years shut their doors and laid everyone off. As I grew up, I always wanted my degree, and knew this was a perfect chance to hit the restart button on my life. So, when I went back to college at the age of 25, I started to look into architecture. I knew, deep down, I didn’t want to design buildings because I don’t like the feeling of being enclosed- I love the outdoors. I am also an avid golfer and always wondered who designed golf courses and such, so I went online and discovered landscape architecture. I immediately changed my mind from architecture to landscape architecture and was then accepted into Cal Poly’s BLA program, but not to design golf courses.

What year are you in your studies at Cal Poly and what has your experience been like?

Currently, I’m in my final quarter at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. My degree will be a Bachelors in Landscape Architecture. The city of San Luis Obispo and the program at Cal Poly have changed my life 100 percent. The people who I have gotten to know are some of the smartest and most genuine people I have ever met. The program that Cal Poly offers is top shelf; it’s demanding and rewarding at the same time. David Watts is a professor at Cal Poly, and he single-handily changed my life by offering an internship program abroad in South Africa. David offered me the Project Manager position within the internship, and from that moment, my life would never be the same.  

Starting a non-profit is a little outside the traditional path for a Landscape Architecture student.  Can you tell us about your path to starting Swings for Dreams? 

It’s unique right!? Swings for Dreams was started in South Africa last summer while we were designing and constructing a play space for an orphanage called Ratang-Bana.  Being Project Manager for the first time, I wasn’t familiar with the specifics, like budgeting and material costs, but this is where my eyes started to open. Our total budget for a half acre playscape was $5,000 USD, the equivalent of 50,000 South African Rands!  I was astonished by how far the dollar could go in South Africa. The deal closer was the kids.

Fifty kids were allowed to enter the gates of the orphanage each day to get food and clothing. The kids in Alexandria Township were starving, and there is no other way to say it. My heart broke again and again each day because there were 200 kids waiting to get in.  We also needed to eat in order to have enough energy to construct the play space, but sometimes, we simply just gave our food away because we knew that it could be one of the first times the child would eat all week.  It got harder and harder to watch as we progressed with the playscape construction.

Seeing kids standing behind the closed gates made me reflect on my life and the possessions that I had back at home. The final straw was when I had to travel into town to go to the local builders supply store. On the way, we stopped to pick up six kids that were walking down the dirt road with huge plastic bags. There were three boys and three girls – two of the boys were 18 and the other 16.  The girls were between seven to twelve years old. The kids were well acquainted with the orphanage because their mother recently passed away and the father was nowhere to be found. For the first time, I witnessed a child-only home, which is not at all uncommon in this region of the world. 

As we helped the kids take the bags of groceries into the shack, I noticed all that was inside was a mattress and some clothes on the ground. There was no running water and the floor surface was just dirt. On the bed was the fourth sister, who was clearly 6-9 months pregnant. At that time, I was too overwhelmed by emotion, so I just left. As we drove off, I got the full story.

Since the mother’s passing, the kids were starving. With the equivalent of a 6th grade education, the boys became “professional thieves” and the pregnant sister was selling her body in order to provide food for the rest of her family.  And, that wasn’t the worst part– it was confirmed she had AIDS. These seven siblings were in a state of desperation unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. That was it. My heart broke into so many pieces. I like to consider myself a “manly-man,” but this experience shattered me.  I wasn’t going to stand for it.

After the construction of the playscape was complete, we truly got to experience what impact we had on the community. Seeing grown adults on their hands and knees stroking the blades of grass we planted and their ear-to-ear smiles triggered the “Ah-hah!” moment. That night, my best friend and Construction Team Leader, Nicholas Tuttle, and I decided that this was what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives: help others who don’t have the resources to help themselves. Swings for Dreams officially started three days after we finished construction, while we were still in Africa.  

What was the most memorable moment of your first project at the Ratang Bana Orphanage?

Watching the kids play! Seeing the elders of the orphanage in tears as a result of such happy kids. Seeing the kids playing, I understood that this was a temporary physical relief from the beyond harsh reality of their everyday lives. The last day at the orphanage left many lasting memories.

How has this experience shaped your view of the profession of Landscape Architecture?

To be honest, I love Landscape Architecture, period. I love AutoCAD (I know I sound crazy). I love plants. I love designing. I love the profession from top to bottom and hope that Swings for Dreams will help take Landscape Architecture into an entirely new scope of social responsibility.  

How do you hope Swings for Dreams will influence local communities?

I would like our local communities in America to understand that play is essential to the mental and physical development of children and that play isn’t a right that is shared around the world – whether it being here in America or 8,000 miles away in a rural town in South Africa. To help out with our community efforts in America, we have started Swings for Dreams Juniors, an educational high school club that was started by Sophie Thompson, a freshman at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. Swings for Dreams Juniors is our “Kids helping Kids” campaign to help combat the disparity of play around the world. Our Juniors learn about Landscape Architecture and fundraising, while developing positive life skills. They will also be also be communicating with kids around the world.  Our Juniors club is expected to expand to five new high schools at the beginning of Fall 2014.

You recently launched an Indiegogo campaign.  What are your goals with your second project?

Yes! We are about to launch our Indiegogo Crowd Funding Campaign on May 1st, 2014!!!! Our funding goal is $30,000 USD. Our next project is located in the very rural town of Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Our site is Lettie de Klerk Primary School, which has 240 young minds from the ages of 7-18 attending. We basically came across this site by  making a 24 hour pit stop to rest in a neighboring town called Graaff-Reinet. Nicholas and I were merely walking around town, stopped in a clothing store, and met a man named Dean Vaaltyn. Dean’s wife happened to be the principle of Lettie de Klerk, and we told him what we did in Alexandria. He asked us to consider doing work in central South Africa. He advised us that “everyone forgets about us in the middle.” He went on to make a very good point: “Just because we live in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean we should be forgotten about.” Nick and I shook his hand and advised him we would not forget about him.

As soon as we landed in America, the plan to return to Lettie de Klerk began. We have sent three PhD scientists with ranging specialties to conduct our site analysis, along with a four-page questionnaire to learn more about the needs of the school and the community. Lettie de Klerk is on a barren piece of land that has basically no vegetation (kids cannot eat lunch outside because they have no shade from the extreme heat), no clean water, and no place for kids to be kids.

This is where Swings for Dreams comes in to help! Swing for Dreams’ goals are to improve not only the lives of the children of Lettie de Klerk, but the lives of the community. Our design is loaded with fun custom play elements for all age levels, sports fields, lots of plant material, rain water harvesting systems, and water purification systems to just name a few. In addition, we’re bringing in professionals who can help with improving sustenance farming. We want to teach the children and community about sustainable farming techniques like “Dry Farming” so they can move into a new realm of healthy living rather than just surviving. My team is also looking to bring safety and education back to school. We want Lettie de Klerk to be a hub of hope for children, when there might not seem like there is any, in desperate times. And, we want to keep a promise to Dean. Nick and I are men of our words.

Along with the Indiegogo campaign, are there other ways Land8 members can get involved?  In other words, how can we best support the cause? 

Wow! Just meeting the founder of Land8 was amazing – I love real people!  Land8 and its members can help the growth of Swings for Dreams in three ways. Members can donate monetarily through our Indiegogo campaign online so we can reach and exceed our goal of $30,000.00 USD.

Land8 members can volunteer on a future project or collaborate with us by filling out the volunteer page on our website. 

Lastly, if everyone could share and help spread the message of Swings for Dreams– that’s really all I can ask for. Members can share our website, swingsfordreams.org. They can also share any of our social media platforms – our goal is to simply spread the word.

Again, thanks for all you’re doing Land8! Swings for Dreams doesn’t believe in fate– good causes bring good people together and it was an honor to have met Andrew and all of Land8.

Our pleasure!  Good luck on the Swings for Dreams’ next project in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa and beyond…

I would like conclude with a quote from Carl Jung – “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”[Tweet this] Let us help fund the mission of Swings for Dreams, so we can help improve the lives of our young ones and create something new – together.  Donate here

Images via Michael Aguas

Support the Swings for Dreams Kickstarter

Published in Blog

3 Comments

  1. I lived in Brasil for two years and I wish I had the ability to do something like this for the kids in some of the extremely poor areas that I saw. Great interview! 

  2. Thanks for the comment, Logan!  Be sure to reach out to the Swings for Dreams. Tthey are looking for volunteers to join their efforts.  Perhaps you could inspire a playspace in Brazil!?  

  3. What a great thing you are doing.  Way to go, guys!

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