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Port Richmond 'gym rat' wins city's Oscar

Philly honors Barbara McCabe for rescuing neighborhood parks.

AFTER DEVOTING 30 years to city parks and the volunteer armies that keep them alive, Barbara McCabe was chosen from 160 nominees to win the Richardson Dilworth Award for Distinguished Public Service in Philadelphia.

It's the city's Oscar for lifetime achievement.

"I pretty much lived at neighborhood rec centers when I was growing up in Port Richmond - Monkiewicz, Samuel, Cohocksink, A&W," said McCabe, the director of stewardship for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. "I don't know what I would've done without them.

"I grew up at Belgrade and Allegheny - Nativity Parish," she said. "My friends and I played every day. And where did you play in Port Richmond, a very industrial neighborhood? You played at the playground.

"One day, it clicked in my head," she said. "Hey, folks get paid to work here! I want to work here!"

Hired in 1985 after graduating from Penn State, McCabe landed at Shissler Rec Center in Fishtown, where she caught the attention of recreation commissioner Michael DiBerardinis, who lived a block away.

"Back in the '90s, Shissler was a mess," said DiBerardinis, now deputy mayor in charge of all city parks and rec centers.

As a youth soccer coach in the Fishtown Athletic Club, DiBerardinis was embarrassed when teams from other neighborhoods came to tournaments at Shissler.

"Me and my wife spent three or four hours cleaning the bathrooms before a tournament," DiBerardinis said. "That's how bad they were."

Then McCabe arrived at Shissler. "Nobody used the bathrooms because they were so gross," she said.

"We scrubbed those bathrooms. Then I told everyone, 'Let me introduce you to the public restrooms.' I had a mom scream at me. I said, 'Please, can we walk in so I can show you?' We became friendly after that."

McCabe painted the Shissler gym. "I closed the gym one day so I could pull the bleachers out and scrape the gum off the floor," she said. "Shissler gym is gigantic. I gave kids a nickel for every piece of gum they helped me scrape."

DiBerardinis said, "I witnessed the turnaround up close and personal."

So when he faced a much bigger mess in the 70 long-neglected, chronically understaffed neighborhood parks, he asked McCabe if she would work a Shissler-style miracle on a citywide scale.

"She formed a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which led a big turnaround," DiBerardinis said.

"For the first time ever, we hired neighborhood folks as seasonal workers, April to September," he said. "She built the parks' 'friends' groups year after year. She brought hundreds of concerts, plays and community nights into neighborhood parks."

DiBerardinis said McCabe deserves the city's highest employee honor because "her honesty allows her to succeed in building trust and connecting to citizens. That's her gift."

"She's the best of who we are as citizens, as public servants, as Parks & Recreation employees," he said.

When McCabe, 53, isn't directing the 100 "friends" groups that are the lifeblood of city parks, she returns to her Port Richmond gym-rat roots.

"I still have my childhood friends," she said. "I still play volleyball at Samuel and at A&W with Sue Hala and Joyce Kamarauskas. We're just a bunch of old ladies out there, trying to stay active."