For years, Deborah Forrest — Miss Debbie to the kids — has made her Kensington block a haven amid the violence that plagues her neighborhood, running a city Playstreets program that closes down the street and provides daily food and activities for more than 50 children.
When the pandemic hit, Forrest prayed that her summer sanctuary wouldn’t become another casualty of the coronavirus.
Her prayers will be answered — partly.
City officials said Thursday that some version of Playstreets, which transforms 350 blocks across the city into summer respites, would go on this year. And they encouraged residents to apply, hoping to boost the number of participating streets.
But they aren’t sure what exactly Playstreets might look like this year or if and when children will even be allowed to gather in groups on selected blocks.
With Memorial Day fast approaching and so many more families out of work and in need, that same level of uncertainty is hovering over many of the city’s summer plans.
There’s no timetable for when recreation centers might reopen, or set plans for how camps and summer programming might safely occur this year. Pools will remain closed. The fate of playgrounds and spraygrounds is still up in the air.
“It’s hard to have that crystal ball and try to think about what it’s going to look like,” Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department, said.
She and Cynthia Figueroa, head of the Office of Children and Families, say they are optimistic and have been developing elaborate plans for the summer.
They’ve created nine blueprints for rolling out camps, for example. And if Playstreets can’t fulfill its traditional role, parks and rec staff would deliver meals directly to children’s doorsteps. The kids will be fed, city officials stressed. They just can’t promise the same type of fun in the sun.
“We realized that we really needed some significant planning because to jump into summer this year, it was going to be different than anything we’ve ever done,” Lovell said.
“We haven’t given up on summer,” Figueroa said.
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In normal times, Lovell said, summer would bring Playstreets and camps to 500 locations across the city. The programs serve 20,000 daily meals — lunch and healthy snacks — to children. And they offer safe spaces in neighborhoods where there may not be many.
For nearly 20 years, Eugene Sizer has run the Playstreets program on Darien Street in North Philadelphia. Five days a week, he organizes the dodgeball and baton races, the story times and chalk drawing contests.
But to the kids on Darien, “Mr. Gene” is more like a mentor.
“I try to teach them to respect people and how to be good young men and women,” said Sizer, 70, who has lived on the block with his wife, Dorothy, for 53 years. “They come to me if they have a problem, and we talk it out.”
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The summer camps are a similar staple.
“Structured chaos,” Lovell called them. More than 7,000 children each summer pack city rec centers and pools and set off on weekly field trips.
Camps could still happen this summer — possibly in July, depending on the status of the city’s stay-at-home order. But the joyful chaos will be missing.
Groups will almost certainly have to be smaller, Lovell said, and field trips won’t happen. Guidelines for masks, testing, and other safety measures are still being decided — for both staffers and campers.
“While we want to provide this critical service, it’s going to look dramatically different,” Lovell said.
The department still plans to hire about 1,000 young people as staffers and counselors, even if they can’t yet say what the jobs might entail.
Officials are thinking outside the box — anything to provide some relief in sweltering neighborhoods. Things like sprinklers or misting stations. Lovell joked that she has scoured the internet looking to procure massive amounts of squirt guns.
But summer represents only the first test. The city is likely to face a financial crisis, and hard budget decisions are coming for nearly every department. Parks and Recreation faces a potential 20% cut for the next fiscal year.
Lovell said changes were inevitable, but “we’re doing everything we can to not cut our core programs and services.”
For now at least, “Mr. Gene” Sizer and “Miss Debbie” Forrest said they’re holding out hope that games and reading and outdoor lunches can be saved — at least for part of the summer.
“It means a lot,” said Sizer. “It’s a help to families, especially in a time like now.”