Norristown center fund-raising to open pool for the summer

Brian J. Billings helps repair the George Washington Carver Community Center pool in Norristown, which needs about $35,000 to open.
Brian J. Billings helps repair the George Washington Carver Community Center pool in Norristown, which needs about $35,000 to open. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2014

On one of the hottest days of the year, David Hodo was deep inside the George Washington Carver Community Center pool in Norristown, and he wasn't cooling off. Quite the opposite. He was standing on the empty pool bottom and scraping loose siding off the concrete walls.

County budget cuts, mounting bills, and the harsh winter all have conspired to drain resources from the center.

The 54-year-old pool - where children who don't have the $3 full-day admission can earn their way in by pulling weeds or picking up trash - has not been able to reopen, leaving many children on the east side of town without a place to swim.

But Hodo, the center's board president, isn't ready to throw in the towel.

"We have to get it open because the kids have to swim," Hodo, 61, said last week. The center needs about $35,000, he said.

The pool dates its origins to the summer of 1944, when two black children - who were forbidden to swim in "whites only" facilities in Norristown - drowned in a local swimming hole.

That prompted a fund-raising campaign among blacks and whites to build the community center and pool. Eventually, the Carver center was opened in 1960 at Arch and Jacoby Streets.

The facility in the heart of a neighborhood of brick twins - the only outdoor public pool in Norristown - is open to everyone, and no membership is required.

"We are a true public facility," said Hodo. Small donations from community members will sponsor a swim for another youngster, said Hodo, adding, "We never turn a child away."

In summers past, about 40 children came each day to swim at the center. A nearby day-care operation used the pool, training classes were held for area lifeguards, and neighbors would stop by to sunbathe, he said.

"Our youth is hurting right now," said Mao Howell, who lives in the neighborhood. He added that children have few activities to keep them occupied in the summer, and that money from the municipality or Montgomery County, one of the state's wealthiest counties, was scarce. "Norristown is choking," he said. "We can't do it by ourselves."

In November 2012, county officials informed the center that funding it previously received would be cut, said Hodo.

"That was devastating," he said. The center had to scramble. Shortly after it missed a tax-filing deadline, its 501(c)3 nonprofit status was revoked. It has since refiled and expects to regain the rating, he said.

It is not the first time the center has encountered troubled financial waters. It ran a deficit of $42,006 in 2003 and $40,111 in 2001, according to financial statements filed with the IRS. In 2005, the board discovered years' worth of unpaid or partially paid utility bills. But it managed to weather those storms.

Now Hodo has reached out to local and state representatives for support, he said.

"Carver is a tremendous part of the community," said Rep. Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery). He said he was working with government agencies, nonprofits, and partners in the community to try to get the funding to make sure Carver can get the pool open this summer.

In addition to the pool, the center has a full-size gymnasium used for basketball leagues, open play, and teen dances. A homework help center opens in September. It is rented out for weddings, baptisms, and private parties.

Donations may be sent to the George Washington Carver Community Center, 249 E. Jacoby St., Norristown, Pa. 19401.

610-313-8111 @MariSchaefer

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