Though he has none of his own, Benjamin Piggott is motivated by his love for children. The 44-year-old director of the William Sims Recreation Center in Winston-Salem has worked with and on behalf of youth for much of his adult life. For the past decade, Piggott has operated a successful and nationally-acclaimed "Peace Toys for War Toys" exchange program out of his recreation center on Alder Street. The program — in which children turn in toy weapons in exchange for such nonviolent items as bikes and computers — is aimed at curbing the violence in the surrounding neighborhood of Happy Hills Garden, a poor community that often belies its rosy label.
Unfortunately, Piggott is also motivated by pain. Eleven years ago — just before Christmas 1991 and days after he took over as head of the Sims center — his 25-year-old brother, Kermit, was shot and killed by a longtime family friend. Earlier, the two men had argued, and upon going to his friend’s to patch things up, Kermit was met at the door with a shotgun blast to the chest. According to police, Kermit’s last words were "I can’t believe you shot me."
Piggott, who rushed to the hospital only to find out that his little brother hadn’t survived the ambulance ride, had trouble believing it as well.
"It was like everything was quiet… there was nothing but silence," he recalls, of his perception of the world around him at the time. "It was a shock that he was gone."
Who it was that shot his brother presented an equal shock. "The guy was his best friend," says Piggott. He points out that the man grew up with Kermit and occasionally had even eaten dinner with his family. "It’s almost like it would have been easier if I hadn’t known him."
Piggott credits prayer and ongoing therapy with pulling him through his self-described "void" and placing him on the path to healing. It’s been a decade-long healing process that has benefited far more than himself. To date, over three hundred children have participated in the toy exchange he started in response to his brother’s murder. Piggott holds an annual "Stop the Violence" essay contest and a "Community Youth Speakout against Violence" to engage youth in the process of solving such problems in their own communities. The ideas and recommendations that emerge from these forums are channeled directly to the city’s police chief and mayor. He provides a learning center in the Sims facility where area youth can study and access tutorial help. Piggott also facilitates several federal and state sponsored programs from his center, in which police, clergy and community members work with children in trouble.
"He’s a huge asset to our department," says Todd Barr, a fellow parks and recreation director at Miller Park in Winston Salem. Barr has worked with Piggott since the latter took over at Sims a decade ago. "The death of his brother further motivates him to make positive changes for kids and show them a better way. He’s done great things for Happy Hills."
However, these accomplishments almost never happened. Within the weeks following his brother’s death, Piggott admits to being consumed by a variety of negative emotions — most notably, vengeance.
"I’m not going to sit here and lie to you," says a blunt Piggott. "The first thing a person thinks about is revenge. At the time, if the opportunity had presented itself, I may even have done something."
Instead of responding violently, Piggott chose to do something that would "impact children and get my mind off of what had happened." He began attending victims’ workshops at the local library to try and see his way through his pain. The workshop provided him a much-needed vehicle for venting his emotions among those who could relate and sympathize.
Piggott came up with the toy exchange concept after viewing a police gun-buyback program on TV. "At the time, kids were robbing stores with realistic-looking toy guns," he remembers. The exchange was a way of preventing the seeds of violence from being planted in communities that already suffered disproportionately from crime, drugs and shooting. "I was trying to turn a negative into a positive," says Piggott. "I didn’t want others to go through what I did."
With help and donations from his victims’ group, Piggott organized the first exchange. It was held at the center on a Friday before Christmas 1992, a year after Kermit’s death. The impact was immediate as close to 200 children lined up outside the center and filled nine garbage cans with plastic weapons. In exchange, they were handed books, games, dolls and a variety of other toys.
Each year the program grew in size and popularity as kids from all over flocked to the center. Along the way, the program picked up substantial media coverage, a long list of corporate sponsors and ongoing support from local police and the mayor’s office. Simultaneously, Piggott picked up a slew of awards and recognition, including Winston Salem’s Employee of the Year for 1992, a 1996 Governor’s Award for volunteer service, a 1999 North Carolinians Against Gun Violence Citizen of the Year award and a 2000 Award of Excellence from the National Crime Prevention Council. As a result of the National Crime Prevention honor — which Piggott traveled to Washington DC for and met with then Attorney General Janet Reno — his toy exchange concept was picked up and replicated by a number of cities across the country.
But while Piggott’s accomplishments have gained national attention and impacted the lives of countless children in Winston-Salem and beyond, the impact on Piggott himself is just as significant. "It’s still my therapy," he explains, noting that he still attends the victims’ group meetings on a regular basis. "Once you lose a loved one, it’s a lifelong thing. Those feelings never leave. I’m still going through it."
"My brother walked through the door with me when I was originally given the job to run the center," says Piggott, pointing out how much Kermit loved working with children.
"And every time I reach out to a child," adds Piggott, "I see my brother."