Boy Scout turns 'mud pit' into a $60K playground

Alex Griffith, 16, chosen as a CNN Hero for his Playworld Systems playground in Russia.Watch video Watch Video


KRASNOYARSK, Russia (CNN) -- "It kept you alive," a tearful Dwight Griffith told his adopted son as the two looked at an infant incubator during a tour of the Russian hospital where he was born.

More than a decade after L.S. Berzon City Clinical Hospital No. 20 cared for him, 16-year-old Alex Griffith wanted to show his gratitude.

"Russia is part of me and this hospital is part of me. They gave me life, so I [wanted] to give back to them, to give them a fun place to play," said Alex, who lives in Forest Hill, Maryland.

As part of a Boy Scout project, Alex donated hundreds of hours and raised tens of thousands of dollars to build a new playground for the hospital.

Alex -- originally named Sergey -- was abandoned by his parents shortly after he was born at the hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. He weighed less than 2 pounds and doctors said he had a mild case of cerebral palsy.

His condition improved slightly over the next 11 months, when Dwight and Jenny Griffith adopted him.

The first time we saw Alex, he had rickets and he was malnourished," remembered Dwight Griffith. "At first Alex did not smile and hardly moved." Watch Video Watch Alex visit the hospital for the first time in 15 years

Alex grew healthier throughout his childhood and became active in the Boy Scouts. In 2007, he set out to build a new playground at Hospital 20 as his service project to become an Eagle Scout, the highest earned rank of the Boy Scouts of America.

But the teenager had his work cut out for him. In photos his parents took when they traveled to Russia to adopt him, Alex saw that the existing playground had a single rusty swing with a rotten wooden seat and a sandbox that he described as "a mud pit because of all the rain."

"I was just like, 'Wow, that's a lot different,' " he said.

Alex devoted 2 ½ years to his Krasnoyarsk Playground Project. In addition to recruiting more than 500 volunteers in five countries, he raised more than $60,000 by soliciting help from local Rotary Clubs and joining forces with other Boy Scouts for candy sales, car washes and barbeque fundraisers. Alex oversaw every aspect of production, from designing and purchasing the playground to shipping equipment overseas.

The project is a hit. Young patients and their families now have at their disposal swings, a rock wall, a climbing bridge and 5-foot tall zip slides. The playground is painted red, white and blue and the entrance has two totem poles: a bear for Russia and an eagle for America.Watch Video  Watch children enjoy the state-of-the-art playground »

Alex and a small group of volunteers traveled to Hospital 20 in early August to set up the playground. A dedication ceremony was held there on August 12 -- Alex's birthday.

"It makes me feel awesome opening the playground on my 16th birthday," he said. "It's just made me really happy just being here."

The people of Krasnoyarsk have embraced the teenager, especially the children.

"I like this playground, because when you slide on it all the sadness goes away," said 11-year-old Sonja Sultanova. "I think that Alex is a noble person."

Alex no longer shows signs of cerebral palsy, but he does have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulsivity and a frail frame. His parents believe some of his conditions relate to his time in the hospital, due to a small staff with a lack of resources to provide enough care for the babies.

Still, he and his parents are thankful he is doing as well as he is, having grown into a typical suburban teenager alongside his four adopted siblings. He enjoys riding his dirt bike and playing video games.

Alex anticipates finding out if he becomes an Eagle Scout within the next couple months, but he is already satisfied with the outcome.

"This project has been a lot of fun and other kids who have been adopted are contacting me asking for advice," he said. "I am going to do whatever I can to help them."