Nestled in the 1800 block of Wallace Street is the vividly colored Roberto Clemente Park and Playground. Inside the park residents have access to a basketball court, a grassy field, a jungle gym and a recreation center. However, one of the most important resources the park offers is its free after-school program.
“The hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are some of the most dangerous for a child to be outside and unsupervised,” said recreation leader and park supervisor Nick Dobkowski. “Many of the parents of the after-school program need a safe place for their children to be while they are at work or otherwise involved.”
The program is housed inside the park’s recreation center and is open to children between the ages of 6 and 12. Most participants of the after-school program attend Laura W. Waring Elementary School which is right next door to Clemente Park. The program runs every day and provides academic enrichment as well as organized recreation to about 30 students.
When the children arrive at the recreation center they are given a lunch, assisted with homework and led in a variety of structured activities. One such activity is chess.
“Almost all the children are interested in learning how to play chess,” Dobkowski said. The students’ parents have been impressed with the chess program, he said.
Dobkowski said he believes chess is a way for children to learn without realizing they are learning. “You’re getting them to eat their vegetables without them actually knowing it,” he said.
The after-school program emphasizes physical fitness as well as academics. Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation employee Cassandra Lee comes to the recreation center every Friday to teach the kids about eating healthy. She leads them in weekly programs which includes running, aerobics, dance and jump rope.
Lee has been able to come to the recreation center because of grant from the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation. She is the 6th District instructor who visits four recreation centers in the district each week. Her job is part of a citywide initiative which strives to create community access to healthy food and activities.
“I’m trying to get them to understand that they need to be healthy for life and not just while they are young,” Lee said.
The children at after-school program have embraced Lee’s effort. They refer to themselves as “The Healthy Rock Star Bookies.” A bulletin board in the center’s hallway has been decorated with a motto and logo which the children created.
Lee’s running program has been preparing the children for the Legs Against Arms 5K run on April 28. The race is organized by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and raises money for youth violence prevention.
On March 14, the children will also be participating in the annual Flip Fitness Challenge sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.
In the last few years, residents and community partners have come together to renovate Clemente Playground. An organization developed by supporters of the park called Friends of Clemente joined with members of the Spring Garden Community Development Corp. and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation to revitalize the park in 2011.
The after-school program is hoping to win a renovation of its own. Clemente Recreation Center is currently running against 16 other Philadelphia recreation centers in a competition called March Madness Rec Center-Style! and is sponsored by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Each competitor made a 15-second video to showcase their answer to the following question: What does a rec center mean to you?
Each week two of the 16 centers compete for online votes. The winner is determined in the form of a basketball bracket. The center which makes it all the way to the top of the bracket will get a redesigned recreation center and a graphic wall installation designed by the students and the creative team Replica. The competition runs from March 1 to March 31. Voting will be held on www.replicacreative.com.
Over the next five years Dobkowski said he would like to see the after-school program expand and keep engaging with community partners. “I would like to see subsections of the after -school program where we zone in on chess or drama or math or different focus areas,” he said.
Dobkowski has already made a few connections with local community organizations. Last week Pete Kurtz of the Pennypack Environmental Center visited the after-school program to teach the kids about maple sugar. Dobkowski said he also hopes to take the children to Eastern State Penitentiary this spring.
Dobkowski said he is looking for volunteers to increase the quality of the program. “The more people we have the better support we can provide,” he said.
It is important to Dobkowski for the after-school program to continue to be free of cost. This way every child who wants to attend will have access to the program’s resources.