For campers, $1.1M accord in swim-club bias case is bittersweet

Gabriel Levin said the legal terms call for healing efforts.
Gabriel Levin said the legal terms call for healing efforts.
Posted: August 19, 2012

A hard lesson has impressed itself on Marcus Allen too often since he and 65 other black and Hispanic children were turned away three years ago from an affluent, mostly white Montgomery County pool club.

"Racism and discrimination are still present in America, even though it's 2012," the 14-year-old said Friday.

But a day after the U.S. Justice Department announced that the now-defunct Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley and Northeast Philadelphia's Creative Steps day camp had reached a settlement valued at up to $1.1 million, Allen said the outcome offered hope that even the most difficult truths can be changed over time.

"Just as we did at the Valley swim club, we can change that around the world," he said.

Friday, dozens of elementary-school-age children from Creative Steps scampered in and out of the camp's Frankford Avenue storefront, many too young to remember the 2009 incident at the pool.

Many of the students there that June day, when campers were met with blistering questions from the club's mostly white membership, have grown up and moved on.

Creative Steps had signed a contract that year for its campers to use the Valley Club pool, across the Philadelphia-Montgomery County border, after their local YMCA shut down.

But on the first day they arrived, some of the children reported hearing racial slurs.

"What are so many black children doing here?" some of the campers would later report overhearing members gossip. Some club members allegedly removed their children from the pool.

Within days, the club canceled Creative Steps' contract and refunded its money. Then-club president John Duesler initially said the decision had been made because there weren't enough lifeguards for Creative Steps' 66 campers but later said he worried the children would "change the complexion" of the club.

Though Duesler said later he regretted his choice of words, the remarks only stoked the anger and turned the swim club into a nationwide flashpoint of racial tension.

Within months, negative publicity forced the Valley Club to declare bankruptcy. Its pool was later sold to a Philadelphia synagogue for $1.5 million. Club representatives could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Creative Steps director Alethea Wright said the response of some Valley Club members that day three years ago still galled her.

Under the terms of the agreement announced Thursday, as much as $1.1 million will be split among 73 claimants - including the day camp, several counselors, and the 66 students in attendance that day.

After a Philadelphia bankruptcy judge approves the settlement, money for those children under 18 will be placed in a trust until they reach legal adulthood, Creative Steps attorney Gabriel Levin said.

The agreement also sets aside $65,000 to launch a leadership council made up of campers, members of the former pool club, and their families. The group is tasked with planning educational and recreational activities to promote racial sensitivity.

"There was a real feeling that something should be done beyond just suing the club," Levin said of the council. "We'd like to bridge that gap that obviously still exists between those two groups and heal some of the discord that exists in the community."

Wright said she hoped the money would set up many of her campers to get the type of education that would change the opinions of those who judged them.

"It's a bittersweet moment," she said. "I'm discouraged that this came up the way that it did, but I'm ecstatic with the outcome. These children took a stand for justice, and now they have the funds to go to college."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com.

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