Annette John-Hall: Doris Swarn keeps Hartranft's indoor pool afloat

Doris Swarn leads a swim class at the Hartranft pool. "It's awesome the way Doris works her program," says one community leader. "Whatever is going on in that pool, Doris is on it."
Doris Swarn leads a swim class at the Hartranft pool. "It's awesome the way Doris works her program," says one community leader. "Whatever is going on in that pool, Doris is on it." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 28, 2011

Doris Swarn wasn't being rude, although you got the sense she could take or leave all this interview stuff.

It was just that answering questions between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. - swim hours at Hartranft pool - could be a chore, especially with children in the water.

And with the summer season here, and as many as 500 kids per day signing up to swim, a dedicated lifeguard simply can't have distractions.

"Can you come after 5?" she asked.

If a disproportionately violent, traditionally neglected community like Hartranft, between Sixth and 10th Streets from Lehigh Avenue to York Street, is going to turn around, it's people like Swarn who are going to make it happen.

Swarn is here year-round, conducting swim lessons and water aerobics, throwing splash parties on her own dime, coaching, encouraging and, yes, enforcing pool etiquette.

"I'm telling you, it's awesome the way Doris works her program," gushes lifelong resident Diane Bridges, executive director of the Neighborhood Enrichment and Transformation Community Development Corp. "Whatever is going on in that pool, Doris is on it."

The community needs her.

Under control

I returned to Hartranft around 5, just as swimmers cleared out. The kids' rambunctiousness had dwindled to a low roar, but I could tell that Swarn and her partner still had their hands full.

Judging from Swarn's steely gaze at the remaining splashing stragglers, whistle poised in her mouth, she had it under control. Admittedly, she has gotten into her share of dicey confrontations with strapping teenage boys while trying to enforce the rules.

"They think I'm their age, so they don't think they have to respect me," says the 24-year-old Penn State Abington student, who is majoring in environmental studies.

In a neighborhood where a misinterpreted random slight can lead to a tragic incident, Bridges always has Swarn's back.

"I tell her, 'You handle [discipline] at the pool, let us handle the community,' " says Bridges, who adds that police regularly patrol there.

"Doris ain't one you second-guess," Bridges says. "If she says something happened, it happened. Parents trust her. That's how she is."

Swarn, who is training for next month's New Jersey triathlon, is on a mission to teach kids - many of whom are overweight - the benefits of exercise through swimming, not just playing in the water. And she doesn't tolerate excuses. She's always at the dollar store buying a stash of goggles, ready to give to the kids who complain that the water burns their eyes. She teaches image-conscious girls how to keep their hair dry using her tried and true two-cap method. (She provides caps for them, too, of course.)

"Making this a swimming community would be a good thing," Swarn says. "This is how a swimming community starts, with a year-round pool."

Rough waters

There was a time when the stability of Hartranft pool bobbed up and down like a game of Marco Polo. One of only six indoor pools in the city, Hartranft stayed shuttered for at least 20 years after a young boy sneaked in after hours and and drowned, Bridges said.

The pool reopened in 2008, after residents persistently petitioned, only to close in '09, its lifeguards laid off because of the imploding economy. It opened again in 2010.

Last year was Swarn's first at Hartranft. She had hoped to work all year, but discovered in March that she'd be replaced until the summer season geared up in June.

That's when Bridges, who has been cited by Mayor Nutter for her work in the community, made a call to City Hall to make sure there was no interruption in Swarn's duties.

"They requested me to stay," Swarn says appreciatively.

She looked out at the empty pool, already planning her next task. "There are a lot of young kids who just sit along the wall" because they're afraid to swim, she says. "I don't want any young kids on the wall."

I bet she'll have them swimming in no time.


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com.

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