Montco swim club accused of racial discrimination

I heard a white lady say, What are all these black kids doing here?'" 14-year-old Dymir Baylor (left) said. (James Heaney/Staff Photographer)
I heard a white lady say, What are all these black kids doing here?'" 14-year-old Dymir Baylor (left) said. (James Heaney/Staff Photographer) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: July 09, 2009

Days before a Northeast Philadelphia day camp's membership at a private suburban swim club was rescinded, several of the campers said they had heard racial remarks about themselves at the pool.

Parents and staff members of Creative Steps Inc. day camp are considering legal action against the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, said Alethea Wright, the camp's executive director.

Sixty-five campers, kindergartners through seventh graders who are African American and Hispanic, arrived at the private swim club around 3:30 p.m. on June 29. It was their first visit to the club, but the camp had made arrangements for weekly trips on Mondays through Aug. 10.

While the campers were swimming, Wright said, three of them came up to her and said they had heard club members asking what African Americans were doing at the club.

Although the children were upset, Wright said, they stayed at the pool for an hour more to complete their session. She said that she approached club president John Duesler while events unfolded that day and that he seemed apologetic.

On July 3, Wright said, the camp's $1,950 check in membership fees to the swim club was refunded, meaning the children no longer had access to the pool. She said Duesler gave no reason for the refund except that the membership no longer wanted the children at the pool.

Repeated attempts to reach Duesler, other club officers, and the club's management yesterday were unsuccessful. NBC10, which first reported the story, said yesterday that Duesler had given the station the following statement: "There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion . . . and the atmosphere of the club."

The club is not affiliated with the Huntington Valley Country Club, which today inadvertantly found itself a target of public rage.

"We've been getting a lot of nasty calls," country club receptionist Karen Ojeda said.

Wright said she heard no racially charged comments when the campers were at the club but did hear a club member express displeasure that the children were at the pool. She said many parents made their children leave the pool after the campers arrived.

"There were no behavioral problems" with the campers, who were accompanied by eight Creative Steps staff members, Wright said. "They never gave a reason."

Club member Bernadette Sinnott, 44, said that although she was not at the pool on June 29, she had heard the club took back the campers' membership because of space issues, not race.

"I think they thought it was too crowded," she said.

Sinnott was at the club yesterday with her son Brandon, 14, who said he was biracial and had never encountered racism at the pool.

The camp first contacted the club about membership after the New Frankford Community Y in the Frankford section of the city - where the children used to swim - closed last month because of lack of money. The club is about a 20-minute drive from the camp's location at Devereaux and Summerdale Avenues in Northeast Philadelphia.

The campers swim at an indoor pool on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Jewish Community Center in Philadelphia, but Wright said the camp wanted to get them to an outdoor facility as well. She said Girard College had offered its pool to the campers for the rest of the summer.

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents the camp's Northeast Philadelphia district, said the allegations were upsetting but not surprising.

"It is outrageous and unfortunately part of what we still confront day in and day out because of folks' lack of understanding," she said. "Once you cross the county line, it's a whole different world."

Several parents and the camp are looking into possible legal action against the club, said Staci Morgan, a Creative Steps board member and Philadelphia social worker.

Their options depend on whether the state Human Relations Commission has jurisdiction over the club's operations, said Michael Hardiman, a lawyer with the commission. Organizations that are "distinctly private" do not fall under that jurisdiction.

Hardiman would not say whether the Valley Swim Club met the commission's criteria for investigation.

The club includes more than 10 acres of land and a 110,000-gallon pool, according to its Web site, and is a private nonprofit organization chartered in 1954. A single membership is $395 per year.


Contact staff writer Zoe Tillman at 215-854-2917 or ztillman@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Derrick Nunnally contributed to this article.

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