For more than a century, the Kingsessing Recreation Center has been an anchor for its Southwest Philadelphia community.

Then the pandemic closed city rec centers for nearly 13 months, and took that lifeline away.

“Kids went from shooting basketball every day to shooting dice on the corner, literally overnight,” said Tessa Renshaw, head basketball coach for the Kingsessing Roadrunners 16-and-under team before the pandemic. “Seeing kids lose programming, that was more terrifying to me than COVID.”

In Philadelphia, recreation centers are safe havens for children, a place to unwind, discover passions, and start healthy habits; where elders check in on and mentor youth; where memories are made and communities celebrate, vote, and share meals.

And in neighborhoods like Kingsessing, where gun violence is taking an increasing toll, staying busy at a rec center can change a young person’s life.

Finally, that critical support system may be restored soon — and as more kids are out of school with time to fill, its salvation cannot come soon enough, said coaches, residents, and city leaders.

» READ MORE: Pools and camps are back, and PlayStreets will expand again: How Philly recreation is reopening

Over the next few weeks, rec center programming will increase, summer camps will resume, and the doors to all 159 centers are expected to fully reopen by early July.

With shootings up 27% year-to-date compared to 2020, Philadelphia officials are reigniting calls to increase hours, programming, and staffing at the centers to get young people out of harm’s way.

“The stakes are as high as they can be,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas.

‘We provide them a safe space’

Built in 1916 and expanding across 8.4 acres, the Kingsessing Rec Center has four outdoor basketball courts, a boxing gym, two baseball fields, a pool, and 50 rooms with countless programs.

Ask anyone with a connection to the space and they’ll tell you: “It’s family”; “It’s a little town”; “It’s home.” The building’s walls wear that love: Heart drawings are taped to the bricks, and green tape marks the heights of neighborhood children.

Basketball is a way of life for many who come through Kingsessing. Brothers Walter Hester, 21, and Elijah Hester, 17, spent their childhoods there, trying every sport before landing on basketball. Pre-pandemic, summer Saturdays meant hopping from the basketball courts to the pool, home for dinner, then back to the park with friends.

Robert Keys, 16, who plays with Elijah for Paul Robeson High School, was only 6 when the center introduced him to the sport. Now, both hope to play in college.

“The rec center teaches you to make smart decisions, to be who you are, don’t be a follower,” said Keys. “It keeps you from doing bad things that’s around, from doing violence. It keeps you focused and gives you a way to cope with being from the area.”

Community leaders like Constance Harris Crews, 20-year president of the advisory council, keep an eye on kids, offering help with homework and job applications, or just asking about their day. The Hester brothers call her “Aunt Connie” and “Grandma,” and her husband, Andre, who heads the center’s basketball league, “Pop Pop.”

“To this day, they still make sure we on the right path,” said Walter Hester.

Access to parks and recreation has been shown to reduce crime and improve communities’ overall health and well-being. Before the pandemic, Los Angeles expanded rec centers’ and parks’ programming and hours in underserved communities, and saw lower crime rates.

“Giving these kids something to do and somewhere to be is so important,” said Lynard Stewart, assistant recreation leader at Happy Hollows in Germantown. “We provide them a safe space, with food and comfort … a place to destress.”

Elijah Hester said the rec center family “always stayed as one” and looked out for one another.

“But when they shut it down,” he said, “it broke us apart.”

‘It kept them out the way’

When rec centers shuttered in March 2020, and the city removed outdoor basketball rims to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Renshaw — a.k.a. “Coach Tess” to Robert Keys and Elijah Hester — felt a wave of panic as she watched gun violence surge.

Renshaw, 38, who now coaches for the Sharon Knights Elite, knew keeping her teenage players occupied could mean life or death. She took players on field trips just to get them out of the city, and fund-raised to send them gift cards for meals.

The perimeter of the Kingsessing rec center was known as a “no violence zone,” community members said. But during the pandemic, that fell apart. The surrounding area has seen numerous shootings in the past year, and many young people who frequented the outdoor basketball courts are fearful of returning, Elijah Hester said. He only plays indoors now.

This past March, Walter Hester was walking home from a friend’s house in Southwest Philadelphia when he was caught in crossfire and shot in the right leg. The injury kept Hester — who holds the all-time scoring record for Paul Robeson basketball with 1,550 points — from starting his first year playing for Camden County Community College.

It was a Monday at 8 p.m. when the shooting erupted — the time when, pre-pandemic, he was typically practicing inside the center.

Keys said some teammates left the sport during the closure, finding jobs or losing motivation to return.

“Just to see them change, it was crazy, just because basketball was taken away,” he said. “It showed how much it meant to the community and how much it kept them out the way.”

When rec centers were closed, the Department of Parks and Recreation worked to fill gaps, turning them into community food sites, distributing over 200,000 meals and food boxes. Forty locations became access centers for 1,000 vulnerable students to do their schoolwork. The department expanded PlayStreets and brought recreation directly to neighborhoods.

Staffers like Kelcie Casper, assistant recreation leader at Juniata Park’s Ferko Playground, set up virtual game nights and tutoring, and formed a Teen Walking Club.

“I wanted them to know I didn’t forget about them,” said Casper, 31.

Returning to the rec

Most rec centers reopened in April, but have had strict COVID-19 safety measures. Even now, centers require sign-ups to use the space. Around the country, about 92% of rec centers are open, according to a National Parks and Recreation Association survey.

The fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine has complicated reopening. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said the department talks with health officials weekly about lifting restrictions safely. By early July, she hopes rec centers can return to an open-door policy.

The department is also struggling to fill seasonal jobs at pools and camps, having hired about 60% of staff needed to reopen all pools.

City leaders like Isaiah Thomas, who sits on the city’s recreation committee, said getting these spaces back — and with more programming — is crucial as violence surges. As of Wednesday, 250 people have been killed in homicides, a 37% increase over last year.

City Council advanced a budget deal Thursday that added $500,000 in Parks and Recreation funding, which will go toward the Philadelphia Activities Fund, a nonprofit that gets city funding and allows Council members to give money to community groups in their districts. The department’s budget will total $62.6 million in the next fiscal year, about $2.5 million less than what it was pre-pandemic. Council and the Kenney administration also touted restored Parks and Rec funding as part of a deal for $68 million in new anti-violence funding.

Rec center leaders are hoping to bring teens back with jobs and grassroots programming. Ott Lovell said the department is leveraging micro-grants and partnerships to launch new programs like eSports, podcasting, and cosmetology. Christy Rec Center in Cobbs Creek is working with the 18th District to improve police relations with young people.

They can’t wait to see the crowds return.

“Kids have felt alone,” said Casper of Ferko Playground, “and I want to give them any program possible to get them to come back in.”

Staff reporter Laura McCrystal contributed to this story.