North Philadelphia: Nonprofits Show Up for Fun in the Sun

A crowd gathers to watch a music performance by Drilla.

Kids ran around in the grass, bounced in bounce houses, and got their faces painted at Scanlon Recreation Center in Harrowgate from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during The Block Gives Back’s 6th annual Peace & Play Day.

The Block Gives Back, a community service nonprofit, started hosting Peace & Play Day in 2017 to encourage residents to use public parks more and make them safe spaces from gun violence in their communities. In addition to bounce houses and face painting, there was free food, live music from local performers, and community resources.

The Block Gives Back started out as a group of friends looking for ways to help people in their community in 2011 before they decided to formalize their operations in 2016 and become a nonprofit, Hakeem Ruiz, the vice president of The Block Gives Back, said.

Ruiz wanted to find ways to give back to his community after getting into trouble with the law and creating The Block Gives Back was perfect for that, he said. 

Residents in underserved neighborhoods often feel their parks are neglected, Ruiz said. Peace & Play Day tries to create a positive atmosphere in these parks, encourages people to use parks more, and treat them with respect. 

“We gonna give you a positive message of why you want to be here and the kind of things you want to keep out of here,” Ruiz said. 

Throughout the day there were games of dodge ball, kickball, and volleyball along with a bean bag toss, ring toss, a giant Jenga set, and a giant Connect Four set for kids to play with in addition to the bounce houses. 

For Peace & Play Day, The Block Gives Back partners with local businesses and other nonprofits to provide educational and medical resources for residents and promote other anti-violence initiatives. 

Partners this year included Bebashi, a nonprofit that provides support to people living with HIV/AIDS; Turning Points for Children, a health nonprofit; Ahari a nonprofit that provides housing for homeless and at-risk veterans; SafeHub Philadelphia, an organization that uses sports to teach young people life skills; and Stomping Grounds Cafe, a cafe owned and run by the YouthBuild Charter School.

Being part of Peace & Play Day was important because it uplifted families and gave people an opportunity to find resources, Janice Tosto, a hunger relief supervisor at Bebashi, said.

“A lot of folks are not having events because of, you know, fears of gun violence so it’s nice that we’re able to do this today,” Tosto added. 

Turning Points for Children has partnered with The Block Gives Back for five years because they both want to make positive changes in their communities, Nicole Smith, the director of community and prevention for Turning Points, said. 

“We want to make sure that the community knows who we are and we’re here for them whether it’s to have fun together or if they’re in a need for something that we can fill the gap,” Smith said.

Though Peace & Play Day promotes parks as safe spaces, making that a reality requires an ongoing effort, and results are best measured through the level of community engagement, Ruiz said.

“If I can go there once a month and clean up the needles and not find any needles, then I think I made a big difference,” Ruiz said. “But unfortunately in the meantime, you go once a week you’ll find several all around that park.”

Parks and other green spaces help reduce gun violence and other violent crimes and facilitate community engagement as long as the parks are maintained, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

There have been 1,292 shootings in Philadelphia so far in 2022, compared to 1,214 shootings by the same time last year. As of July 14, there has been 127 shootings this month, according to OpenDataPhilly.

Gun violence in Philadelphia predominantly affects Black people in police districts 22, 24, and 25 which cover ZIP codes with a higher-than-average percentage of people living in poverty, according to OpenDataPhilly. Police districts 24 and 25 cover Juniata Park, Frankford, and Harrowgate where the event took place. District 22 covers part of Temple University and Strawberry Mansion.

Low-income neighborhoods have 42% less park space than wealthier neighborhoods and minority neighborhoods have 28% less park space than White neighborhoods, according to Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to creating and preserving parks and green space. 

The Block Gives Back runs also runs Shop With Sean, which teaches kids carpentry so they will have practical skills they could turn into a career, Love Thy Park, a series of park beautification and restoration projects, and Block 2 School, an annual school supply drive.

Community service gets people out of their comfort zones and better understand other people by exposing volunteers to parts of the city they might not otherwise visit, Ruiz said.

“It’s exposure to show you how some youth are underserved, some communities are underserved, and it can really expand who you are as a person,” Ruiz added. 

Seeing The Block Gives Back grow from a group of friends to a citywide initiative is “unbelievable” and the group is looking forward to developing more partnerships with the community, Ruiz said.

“The biggest strength of the community, when you have several people doing the same thing but working together,” Ruiz added. “And I think it’s a giant weakness when you have several people doing the same thing separately.”

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