Landscape architecture senior Nicholas Tuttle is one of the founders of Swings for Dreams, a non-profit which builds safe play spaces for children in developing countries. | Courtesy Photo

Samantha Sullivan
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What started as building swings turned into a dream.

Landscape architecture senior Michael Agua and landscape architecture senior Nicholas Tuttle signed up for a trip to Africa with a few goals in mind: To gain experience and, for Tuttle, go on a safari. All the while, they would be building a play structure, which eventually became Swings for Dreams — a nonprofit that builds safe play spaces for children in developing countries.

How it started

Both Aguas and Tuttle signed up for an internship with associate professor David Watts’ company, Watts Landscaping, where they were to design and build a play space for an orphanage in Alexandria Township, South Africa.

But soon after they began, the two realized they could do something more.

“It was started in the second day of construction,” said Tuttle, the vice president and co-founder. “We saw what we could do and what issues we had faced and how we can utilize the knowledge we gained from the one trip to create even larger scale projects like this is the future and we already started talking about how we could make that happen.”

Aguas, the president and co-founder, and Nicolas were roommates throughout the trip, and spent every night discussing their idea.

But they were missing something: a name.

One night, while sitting around a fireplace in Baviaanskloof, the two and others from the internship brainstormed ideas for a name. Tuttle got out a piece of paper to scribble them down. He wrote approximately 20 different names, Aguas said. Finally, Swings for Dreams came to be.

“The name solidified the organization,” Aguas said. “And as soon as we got home from Africa, it was not even 24 hours before we were already moving on making this an actual foundation.”

Less than a week later, Tuttle said they contacted Jake Disraeli from the Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) and signed up for the Elevator Pitch competition. They became finalists, which got them into the Hatchery. From there, they entered every forum and contest the CIE offered.

Then, Swings for Dreams applied for the SLO HotHouse Accelerator Program for the upcoming summer, but they were turned down.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again

When Swings for Dreams applied to be part of the HotHouse this summer, Aguas said the team felt confident they’d get in since they had worked very closely with the CIE and Hatchery.

However, because they would be in Neiu-Bethesda, South Africa for part of the summer, the CIE decided not to admit them into the HotHouse.

“I didn’t like that answer,” Aguas said. So he applied for a meeting with the CIE to argue his case. Aguas said they were doing what they do as a company — building the play spaces, not taking a vacation, he said.

The CIE eventually agreed.

The HotHouse Accelerator Program provided the organization with $7,500 in funding to grow their organization.

Learning experience

While working in Alexandria Township, the group learned how to be resourceful. They didn’t always have access to the same materials in Africa that they would in America, Tuttle said. For example, many times the team found themselves working with drills and other power tools that wouldn’t cut through the wood. They had to improvise different ways to attach the swings to actually get the fasteners through the wood. That was a big learning experience, he said.

The group also saw something that amazed them: Every day, adults and teenagers would show up and ask them if they could help.

“So every single day — every single day — we had probably between, I don’t know, maybe three to seven community volunteers that, people who we had no idea who they were, would come to the job site and help us work,” Aguas said.

Aguas said this is how the team really got the meet the people of South Africa.

Tuttle said this interaction and resulting connection is something they hope to carry over into every job they do as Swings for Dreams. Because the group is traveling overseas, they don’t want to just show up, build something, then leave. They want to create a sense of ownership amongst the community over the projects they build, Tuttle said.

“You want them to take full ownership,” Tuttle said. “That’s the only way it will be maintained. That’s the only way that it will keep its quality from the day that you left.”

Upcoming projects

The first play structure the two will build under Swings for Dreams will be in Nieu Bethesda, South Africa this August. It will be for a primary school called Lettie De Klerk with approximately 240 kids, ages 7-18.

The group looks at multiple factors to build a play space unique to the community — climate, soil type and local culture are just a few examples.

The team also sent a questionnaire to the principal of the school to figure out what the children want. They found out the children at this school play a game called “sail.” Basically, they get on any discarded piece of trash they can find and slide down hills, Tuttle said.

Swings for Dreams will build a mound that cuts through a ship planted into the ground, meant to look like it’s been capsized there, so the children can slide through the hull of the ship.

“Understanding that, we are able to formulate (and) construct these individualistic play structures that are one of a kind and completely catered to the community,” Aguas said.

Swings for Dreams juniors

The team also created a juniors program, beginning with Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta. By the start of next year, the team plans to expand the program to five more high schools, Youth Outreach Coordinator Erica Monson said.

Swings for Dreams tries to teach the juniors about landscape architecture, design principles and get them to fundraise for the projects in Africa, Monson said. They are given weekly activities; currently, they are writing to pen pals in New Bethesda, she said.

The juniors are also working on designing a bench, which Swings for Dreams will help them to build. The plan is to sell it and the money will go towards the materials needed in South Africa.

“It’s just about reaching the students and youth in America and letting them feel empowered and that they can help out in some way and get involved with their community,” Monson said.

In the future, Aguas hopes to offer college scholarships to the juniors who chose to pursue fields relating to landscape architecture.

What’s next

As for the future, Aguas said the possibilities are “endless.”

“There is just opportunities everywhere,” he said. “There are so many places that need our help.”

The team hopes Swings for Dreams will have at least one project on every continent within the next 10 years. A personal goal of Aguas is to help 1 million children within 10 years (quantifiable by how many kids enter an orphanage or attend a school).

However, before the group can become an official nonprofit organization, they must obtain a not-for-profit states, or 501(c)(3) tax status — a tax ID number that allows an organization to take on funds and provide tax exemption. This will allow Swings for Dreams to take on corporate funding, Aguas said.

“Once we obtain our 501(c)(3), the whole scope for Swings for Dreams is going to change dramatically,” Aguas said. “And hopefully at that point in time we can literally just turn the page and literally become the foundation that I know has the potential to be up there with KaBOOM!, UNICEF, you name it. I believe that we can become that level of foundation.”

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