Karen Heller: A rec-center resurrection

Michael DiBerardinis says his department is "connecting to citizens in a very deep way."
Michael DiBerardinis says his department is "connecting to citizens in a very deep way." (EDWARD SAVARIA JR.)

The city is keeping pools open, basketball courts busy - and, most important, youths involved.

Posted: July 10, 2011

On Friday, the temperature soared to 108 in Phoenix, a hot city beset by hard times. A third of the public pools are closed due to budget woes for the third straight year. Across the country, 350 civic pools have been drained as funding dries up.

"The bizarre part is that because of the desire not to cut police and fire, parks end up being the primary public interface service that's being cut," says the National Recreation and Park Association's Bill Beckner. "A couple of years ago, Atlanta closed most of its centers. Why would you want to put all these kids on the street?"

As Philadelphia marinated last week in a stew of heat and humidity, virtually every one of the city's 70 pools was open, to the delight and relief of many residents, especially our youngest. Two facilities were closed, but that was due to pump problems. They're scheduled to reopen shortly.

This wet, felicitous outcome is all the more remarkable considering that when the economy cratered three years ago, some civic leaders advocated closing all pools.

Today, a year after the arranged marriage of parks and rec, the merged department provides more activities: a park system teeming with programs, and 140 low-cost or free camps serving 7,000 children, keeping them active and occupied 30 hours each week, providing 1,670 paid summer jobs for teenagers and young adults. Lifeguard pay starts at $12 an hour.

The success is all the more remarkable given that department funding was slashed by almost a quarter.

Much of this success is due to parks and rec's visionary and charismatic commissioner, Michael DiBerardinis, chief of the Recreation Department under Mayor Ed Rendell, who helped raise $600,000 from private donors to keep all the pools open.

He speaks of being "clever on how you spend your money." Managers were granted more autonomy, while the department developed a huge network of neighborhood volunteers and private-public partnerships for the 152 rec centers.

"How do you help kids develop out of school? Our goals are helping kids have fun and be successful," DiBerardinis says. "We're building a competitive, green, and sustainable city while connecting to citizens in a very deep way."

For many residents, some of the happiest experiences and profound memories are forged at playgrounds and parks. An active parks and rec system is a wise investment, making citizens, especially children, safer, healthier, active, and engaged.

Vare Rec in South Philadelphia is one such success story. The square-block center at 26th and Morris was long a white bastion. "This place was a war zone, with Vare seen as a private country club for a certain type of resident," says gruff, generous advisory council leader Jim Helman.

The building is a few years shy of a century old and looks it, home to three day camps, two gyms, an exercise room, a computer lab, and music and sewing programs, all free or close to it. The large field is a wreck, more dirt than grass due to constant use. On many summer days, 2,000 residents visit Vare.

Whenever money is needed, the small, active advisory council digs into its pockets and donates to camp scholarships, trophies, whatever.

The summer basketball league is immense, 214 players, 20 teams in all, some from schools and rival factions that have a long history of not playing well together. The athletes are ages 16 to 24, the time when young men are most at risk for criminal activity. Many nights there's a succession of three or four games, with 300 people or more attending.

"The stands are packed. It's the number-one social activity in the neighborhood," says Vare manager Bill Powell, standing near the pool brimming with children.

Pools are much more than water, and rec centers far more than fun.

"We want to play a vital role in the future prosperity of this city while building a vital community life," DiBerardinis says. "We're always trying to engage citizens in a new way," though the old ways, like summer camp, basketball, and pools, appear to be working exceptionally as well.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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