Some perceive a lack of activities for teens in Chester

State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware) laments a lack of activities for teens past the point where playgrounds interest them. "Sometimes I think we are not a child-friendly community," he said. Above, courtside action at the Chester Boys and Girls Club.
State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware) laments a lack of activities for teens past the point where playgrounds interest them. "Sometimes I think we are not a child-friendly community," he said. Above, courtside action at the Chester Boys and Girls Club.
Posted: August 21, 2010

Derrick Bradley, a talented 16-year-old student athlete, sits poolside at Chester's sole municipal swimming pool, texting his friends and basking in the safety of a well-run public facility.

The security provided here and at a number of youth centers is particularly comforting to both young children and teens like Bradley during this hot summer in Chester. It has not been long since the city lifted a 35-day state of emergency after a rash of violent crimes and shootings.

So far this year, 16 people have been slain here, two more than the total for all of 2009.

But Bradley yearns for slightly more diverse hangouts that don't exist in Chester, despite the arrival in 2010 of Major League Soccer: pizza parlors, malls, clothing stores, and other venues to which teens traditionally gravitate.

State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware) sees a crucial lack of activities for teens and young adults who are past the point where playgrounds and sports leagues hold their interest.

"Sometimes I think we are not a child-friendly community," Kirkland said. "It is an unfortunate thing to say, but it is the reality."

Chester needs movie theaters, bowling alleys, and more swimming pools, the former lifeguard said.

Without such gathering places, "the next recreational activity becomes the local bars" for older teens, he said.

Ashley Pless, 18, a Lincoln University student, said sports tend to bring the community together, but other activities are limited.

"Every kid is not a sports person," Pless said. "There are no hangout places. No malls. No place where you can just go and be safe."

She said the community needed to work at getting the right type of businesses in Chester.

"What can the kids go do at a casino or a soccer stadium?" Pless asked.

But it's not all gloom and doom. Pless works as a counselor at the Boys and Girls Club at Front and Fulton Streets, where many of Chester's youth have for decades spent summers and after-school hours.

It is among 40 private groups and churches that offer youth programs, from chorus to league football.

A sign near the door of the club warns children to stay away from moving trains and not to crawl under the large railroad cars parked only feet from their door.

It is sandwiched between the Chester Water Authority and the tracks, but to the children who use the well-worn facility it is a safe place to swim, play tennis and basketball, and just hang out.

The club has leased the facility from the water authority for $1. In about two months it will move into a new building on Ninth Street, kitty-corner to the police station. When complete, there will be a large indoor gymnasium, classrooms, and computer space, a weight-training area, and a kitchen.

Rahlir Jefferson, a lanky 6-foot-6 Temple University basketball forward, says he grew up at the Boys and Girls Club.

While he fills his days with basketball and as a summer counselor to about 80 younger children, he wishes there was something safe at night to occupy his time.

"Outside of sports, I haven't found anything to do," Jefferson said.

Chester's Recreation Department, meanwhile, has increased its budget 48 percent from $1.67 million in 2009 to almost $2.5 million in 2010. A big part of the increase went to expanding staff from one to five full-time employees.

"In the city of Chester, if a child wants to do something, they are able to do it," said Brian Warren, deputy director of recreation. More than 1,000 youths took part in their activities in the last year, he said.

Warren points to a host of available programs, including basketball and soccer leagues, boxing, computer classes, mentoring programs, fashion camp, teen camps, outdoor movie nights, Soap Box Derby, and music, golf, and dance lessons.

But Warren admits the "toughest" group to reach is those in the 15-to-18-year-old age range. Too old for camp-type activities, many want jobs. Next year, he hopes to develop a program to provide employment.

Getting the word out about the city programs has its challenges, acknowledged Councilwoman Marrea Walker-Smith, who oversees the Parks, Public Property, and Recreation Department.

"We really have to build in terms of advertising and marketing," Walker-Smith said. The summer-programs calendar of recreation events the city published this year for the first time, she said, is an example of new outreach efforts.

One encouraging community-service model is the Chester Youth Collaborative, which for the last five years has partnered with about 25 agencies to form a network of support and activities for people ages 12 to 22, organization director Janet S. Riley Ford said.

"We don't turn children away," Riley Ford said.

If a child in one organization wants to participate in a different activity, he or she would easily be able to get contact information, she said.

But older teens are looking for other options.

At the municipal pool, Bradley spends his days relaxing and texting, though he'd rather be working. He's an honor society student, a football running back, a track athlete, and a chess player who wants to be a wildlife biologist. But he says he was told at the start of the summer that he was overqualified for a summer job in fast food. So he lives the dilemma of youth in Chester.

"How am I overqualified?" he wondered aloud. "I'm only 16."

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or

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