Obama girls’ play equipment has local connection

Published 9:30 am Monday, August 17, 2009

On the south lawn of the White House, Sasha and Malia Obama swing on playground equipment with ties to Albert Lea.

The playground equipment was installed at the White House in March by Rainbow Play Systems Inc., a company based in Brookings, S.D., with a distribution center in Albert Lea.

Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, director of the Executive Residence and White House chief usher, worked as a representative for the first family. He contacted Rainbow Play Systems shortly after Barack Obama was elected president.

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“At first, we weren’t sure if it was legit, but when the owner called, we found it that it was definitely a legit phone call,” Kandy Barthel, director of office at Rainbow Play Systems in Brookings.

The playground set installed at the White House is Rainbow Castle package four with forest green accents, which is the feature model on the front cover of the Rainbow catalogue.

“When we were first notified, we couldn’t say anything. When the admiral first inquired about it, it had to be kept a secret because they did not want Sasha and Malia to find out. It was supposed to be a surprise for them.” Barthel said.

The main production facility is in Brookings, S.D., and that’s where all the wooded parts are manufactured, Barthel said. When the wood pieces are finished, they’re moved to the Rainbow location in Albert Lea, which is the main distribution center.

The Albert Lea site also manages hardware, and so things like the swings, slide, bubble panels, canopy and assembly pieces are stored in Albert Lea, where the system is boxed and then shipped.

For the White House system, Albert Lea shipped the parts to the Brookings location. The play system left Brookings March 2, and it was installed March 4, Barthel said.

Barthel said part of the reason a Rainbow system was chosen was the quality of the products, but Rainbow systems are also made in America.

“I would like to guess that we’re the best in the business, but I’m sure that they inquired on others, too. The one thing that set us apart from many of the others is the fact that we are manufactured and produced in America and it’s made out of North American timbers,” Barthel said.

Barthel and six other Rainbow employees traveled to Washington to install the unit.

“It was very exciting. It’s a great opportunity. It was wonderful working with the White House. I got to personally meet the admiral when he came here, and everyone here was very excited about the opportunity to be able to do that,” Barthel said.

The Obama girls are not the only ones who will use the equipment, and Barthel said children and grandchildren of White House staff will also use the equipment.

The play system is on the south lawn of the White House.

The day before installation, the crew parked the truck hauling the equipment in a spot where the Obama girls could not see it. After the girls left for school the next day, the crew installed the system in about four hours before the girls got home.

The crew toured the first two levels of the White House with Rochon, and Barthel said that was a unique experience, but she said that wasn’t the most memorable part of the trip.

“The most memorable was when the kids came out, and they actually came out with the president and first lady. Just seeing their faces on how excited they were to see the Rainbow play set sitting there. And we were able to meet the president and shake his hand, watch him play with his children on the play set,” Barthel said.

Rainbow cannot use the experience as advertising, and so few employees are allowed to talk about the experience, she said.