September 1, 1998

This week my husband and I are traveling to Russia and Northern Ireland. In the light of Russia's political and economic crisis, many have wondered whether now is the appropriate time for the President to make this trip. Actually a visit by the American President may carry particular significance for the Russian people now as they confront the difficult challenges ahead. The United States has an enormous stake in Russia's future, and as Russia struggles to build democracy and economic reform, we must remain engaged and demonstrate our support of their effort.

In addition, there are important foreign policy and security challenges facing the global community in which Russia must play a key role. And, the Russian people must know that, in times of difficulty, the United States will not turn its back.

Likewise, in the face of the recent violence in Northern Ireland, the President's visit stands as a tribute to the courage and determination of the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic who voted to make the Good Friday peace agreement possible. The President's presence also signals his support for the rapid implementation of the agreement and demonstrates that the United States will continue to be deeply involved in supporting the peace process and economic development both in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

While in Northern Ireland, I will have the opportunity to announce the creation of a different kind of partnership smaller but, in many ways, just as important to the future of the region. It's a partnership designed to bring the children of Belfast one of the most fundamentals of childhood a safe place to play. This new partnership will join together PlayBoard, a group based in Northern Ireland and dedicated to improving the quality of children's lives by providing opportunities to play, with KaBOOM!, a $2.3 million nonprofit corporation based in Washington, D.C. that brings individuals, organizations and businesses together to build safe and accessible playgrounds in some of this country's toughest neighborhoods. Their goal is to build 1,000 playgrounds in the U.S. by the end of the year 2000. Darell Hammond, the CEO of KaBOOM, explains why he thinks playgrounds are so important: At KaBOOM!, we believe in play because it is the work of children. When we take away opportunities for children to test their physical skills, develop self-esteem and interact constructively with their peers, we effectively make these children unemployed.

By building playgrounds, we invest in our children and the safety of the communities on which our businesses depend. Sadly, millions of the world's children don't have safe places to play. Instead they play in the streets or other dangerous places, often littered with garbage, broken glass, abandoned cars, even discarded drug paraphernalia. In some parts of the world, the dangers include bombs, snipers and even landmines.

For eight years PlayBoard has studied the impact of violence and sectarianism on the children of Northern Ireland where 70 percent of 9- to 11- year-olds have witnessed a bombing or a shooting and where children as young as three manifest sectarian hatred when they play. PlayBoard's Chief Executive, Antoinette McKeown says, "Our goal is to create an environment to bring out children's natural instinct to play freely to work out their negative experiences through play and to find a way of exploring their own true identities. We hope to rid our children of stereotyping and name calling."

Now, with the support of its American partner, KaBOOM!, PlayBoard hopes to create a unique new play space in the middle of Belfast. As Antoinette describes it, It won't be a traditional playground with swings and roundabouts. It's intended to be an environmental haven with a series of natural challenges designed by children themselves. For many of Belfast's children, this play space will give them their first opportunity to play with children of other faiths. In exchange, PlayBoard will work with KaBOOM! to share what it's learned about the value of therapeutic play with communities in this country. The two groups also hope to host an international conference next year on the value of play.

Darell and Antoinette know that KaBOOM! and PlayBoard are not only building safe places for children to play. They are also building community spirit and pride, bringing people together, breaking down barriers and inspiring hope. The partnership between KaBOOM! and PlayBoard reminds us that what the children of Northern Ireland need is not so different from what the children of our inner cities need or for that matter what children everywhere need. They need to play to explore their environments freely, without fear or prejudice. Only then will they develop the skills to become the leaders of nations that work together so their children can play in peace.