Knight Foundation to give $3 million to neighborhood groups

WKZOVAL21
Opening day at Eakins Oval in summer 2016. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, which recently helped transform the Oval, will receive $3 million to support park and recreation center volunteer groups.

As the city prepares to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into rebuilding its libraries, recreation centers, and playgrounds, the groups that look after those spaces need some help.

Philadelphia has about 200 volunteer groups, often known as “friends-of groups,” whose members advocate for their spaces — from safety issues to improvements — and plan much of the programming that brings people out.

On Saturday, the Knight Foundation will announce a $3.28 million grant to the Fairmount Park Conservancy to support the community groups.

“This is not hyperbole – having people engaged in parks and recreation centers is as important as the capital investment we’re set to make in parks and recreation and libraries,” said Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the conservancy. “That will be a wasted investment if we don’t also invest in communities’ abilities to actively engage a diverse set of residents in these public assets.”

The money could go toward workshops on marketing, budgeting, and fund-raising as well as recruitment strategies to bring in younger members.

The city is in the midst of selecting sites for a $500 million overhaul. A preliminary list of sites came out this week.

“We’re really looking to ensure that investments are made in the people and communities who use public spaces,” said Patrick Morgan, Philadelphia program director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “We want people who use the spaces to be the ones to shape them, to be at the table, and we think that this … helps to do that.”

At last count, Philadelphia had 110 friends-of park groups and 90 recreation advisory councils.

“We want to maintain this incredible network, and to do that we need to find our next generation of park stewards,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the city’s parks and recreation commissioner.  “A lot of these leaders have done this for 20, 30 years, and they’re waiting to pass the baton on to the next crew of folks.”

Lovell hopes the money evens the playing field between groups serving poorer and wealthier neighborhoods.

“You might have a neighborhood group like Fox Chase able to charge $150 for summer camp programming for 50 kids, and then they’ve got some money for programs,” Lovell said. “But if you go to Francis J. Myers in Southwest Philadelphia, they’re charging $20 for summer camp, and probably 50 percent can’t pay that, so there’s not the same ability.”

The money could also help parks and recreation centers that don’t have volunteer groups, like McCreesh Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia.

Tracey L. Gordon has lived near McCreesh for 24 years. She’s trying to organize an advisory council to push the city to reopen the center, which has been closed for the last year.

“If we don’t fight for these spaces, I absolutely don’t think they’ll ever reopen,” she said. “It’s only fair that all children in Philadelphia have equal access to recreation.”