A lot of kids don’t own bathing suits. They arrive wearing dirty shorts, or khakis fraying at the knees, or the sweat-soaked cutoffs they just played basketball in.
The thing is, city policy forbids children to be in the water without proper swimming attire. Frayed fabric can clog a pool’s filters. Dirty suits, nonregulation swim diapers, or bacteria-harboring fabrics can throw off chlorine levels, creating a health hazard.
So what’s a rec-center director to do?
If you’re Oktavia Cherry, director of Athletic Rec Center at 26th and Master Streets, you jump on your bicycle and pedal to Walmart, where the manager knows you well. And you use your own money to buy bathing suits, trunks, swim-safe diapers, towels, and flip flops so kids from homes without resources can enjoy a cool dip in clean water on a sweltering summer afternoon.
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Cherry, 50, is not alone in her dedication, says Parks and Rec chief of staff Tiffany Thurman, noting how other directors, too, routinely open their wallets to provide kids in need with, say, backpacks at the start of the school year or warm coats when the mercury dips.
“Octavia is one of many rec leaders who have set the bar high,” says Thurman. “We’ve taken note of that, and now we’re looking to send them much-needed resources to help them continue that work in a more impactful way."
This summer, directors like Cherry are getting an assist from St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children, which has launched an online funding campaign to help Parks and Rec outfit children with new suits (click here to donate). Good Samaritans can also donate new swim gear — no used items will be accepted — at six drop-off sites around the city (see below).
Many families at Athletic could use the help. The center comprises an entire block in Brewerytown, whose 34 acres are being changed by gentrification. Pricey new single homes and loft apartments mingle with old rowhouses, whose occupants can feel pushed around by all that money.
For them, Athletic is the neighborhood’s beating heart, a place where they feel they still belong. They appreciate how hard the staff tries to respond to community needs.
As other directors have, Cherry has expanded programming beyond traditional offerings such as basketball and soccer leagues. Athletic has an intergenerational running group, so adults and kids can get out from behind their screens and share an activity. There are antiviolence and anti-bullying sessions to counter the tough messages of the streets. Boxing classes for men, women, and children led by Fred Jenkins, a legendary trainer and Athletic institution. And “pampering days” that focus on self-care.
But Cherry’s pride and joy is Athletic’s after-school program that brings in 30 kids during the week, and its summer camp, which brings in double.
She leads a staff of four and several volunteers, but has formed a special bond with Diane Scott, 66, the self-described “mother hen” who has lived in Brewerytown for 40 years and worked at Athletic for 20. Together, they form a fierce tough-love team.
“Miss Scott demands respect from the children from the time they open the door,” Cherry says, noting that Scott is a master of the stop-you-in-your-tracks glare if kids interrupt adults when they’re speaking or brazenly dribble basketballs outside of the gym. “She does not play.”
All week long, the rules are hammered home: respect your elders, respect your peers, respect yourself.
And it works. There are very few fights on Athletic’s playground, and members respect the facility. There’s no graffiti, no candy wrappers blowing across the baseball diamond, no grocery bags of empty beer bottles littering the grounds — thanks in part to Cherry’s regular cleanups, which draw more than 100 neighbors to help.
“We have a staff of amazing, badass men and women,” Cherry says. "And always in the back of my mind is, how can we support the community as much as possible?”
At Athletic, Cherry’s life has come full circle.
Raised by a single mother in New Jersey, she spent most of her summers at a Cape May community center, where her uncle was the director and her grandmother was the secretary.
“For my mother, that center bridged a gap” in child care, says Cherry, who is single and childless. “When I deal with these kids, I always think of her.”
She relishes her role, which she describes as part day-care worker, community activist, activities coordinator, janitor, social worker, cop, coach, and second mother.
“It’s funny,” Cherry laughs. “Until I started doing this, I didn’t even like kids.”
Now, she’s the linchpin in the Athletic extended family, whose staff celebrates each other’s birthdays, where Scott prepares full Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the kids, and where — come summer — everyone knows that a sparkling pool and caring staff await them.
How to help kids (swim) suit up for summer
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is accepting donations of new swimwear for underserved kids who will use the city’s 72 public pools this summer. Items needed include youth and adult bathing suits, swim diapers, flips flops, beach towels, and goggles. All sizes are accepted and, for health reasons, only items with tags can be accepted.
Donors can drop off the gear at the following sites, which are open Monday to Friday, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Center City: One Parkway Building, 1515 Arch St., first floor.
Northwest: Kendrick Rec Center, 5822 Ridge Ave.
West: Carousel House, 4300 Avenue of the Republic.
South: Guerin Rec Center, 2201 S. 16th St.
Northeast: James Ramp Playground, 3300 Solly Ave.
North: Athletic Rec Center, 1400 N. 26th St.
For more information, go to Phila.gov/parksandrec, or call (215) 683-3600.