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Kingsessing Recreation Center is Southwest Philly's living room

Football practice at Kingsessing Recreation Center

Kingsessing Recreation Center

Boxing at Kingsessing Recreation Center

The stage at Kingsessing Recreation Center

If kids get rowdy at the Kingsessing Recreation Center, volunteer Bill Evans has the magic words: "You want me to call your mom?" 

"We know your mom," he explains, underlining the centrality of this community institution. "It's a generational link."

Evans has been managing the Rec Center's computer lab for about five years. Like many volunteers there, both mid-career and retired, he grew up in the neighborhood, shooting hoops and running on the playground, and returned to the Center as an adult to carry on the traditions that made such an impact on him as a youth. 

Outside, kids shout on the south side playground, basketballs thud off the north side courts, and the 13 Trolley rumbles by on Chester Avenue where it bridges the train tracks at 49th Street. But once you enter the unmarked red doorway and walk into the large east-facing lobby, with its brown-and-peach painted arches and worn black-and-white linoleum, you feel like you're in Southwest Philly's living room.

On this Tuesday evening in August, Jayhawks Youth Association founder Andre Crews is working the small front desk with its stack of the Southwest Globe Times.

"It's something I love to do," says Crews of his 41 years coaching youth basketball throughout the region -- it's the same number of years he's been married to Constance, his partner in life and in mentoring over 100 kids (and counting) who have gone on to play college basketball. Their trophies and faces shine from two cases in the Rec Center's entryway.

Meanwhile, Dontae Privette walks in the door and is immediately swamped by a steady stream of kids who need a hello, a hug, or a check-in. He's the young executive director of the Kingsessing Roadrunners, a volunteer-staffed youth organization.

For 46 years this football program ran August through October, but now the Roadrunners have expanded to offer full seasons of basketball, lacrosse (thanks to a partnership with University of Pennsylvania) and dance/cheerleading on the site's eight-and-half-acre footprint. The group is open to boys and girls, with teams for youngsters as well as teens.

At least four times a week Privette runs from his day job as an AMTRAK engineer to oversee sports practices in Kingsessing. 

"We want to build life skills…instead of it being up to chance," he explains. 

The organization uses the sports programs to enhance kids' physical, social and academic fitness. Every practice includes a break that Privette calls "team time" -- kids sit down for small group discussions and games on themes such as good communication and situational awareness.

Tracking academic progress is also an integral part of the Roadrunners. Participants, who come from around the block and around the city, provide report cards to organization leaders. 

"Over 80 percent of our kids see an increase in grades" across the calendar year that they participate in the Roadrunners program, says Privette. 

For Tom Henry, president of the Kingsessing Recreation Center Advisory Council, monitoring and supporting academic success is an integral part of the sports programming. If a child is struggling in school, he wants to see how the team can help put him or her back on track. 

"My whole thing was, let's not put kids out of programs," he explains. "Doors have been shut too much in their faces." If a child is failing at school, "they come to the Center early; they must be tutored before they go to practice…You give them what they need, and you use sports as a vehicle to provide that."

Privette began volunteering at the Center about nine years ago, starting out with the "Tiny Mites" football team of four, five and six-year-olds. He played football in school and studied psychology at Kutztown University, but never imagined he'd be a youth football coach. 

After college, he lived in the neighborhood and often watched Kingsessing kids play. 

"It was a natural thing to inquire if they needed help," he recalls. 

Coaching the Roadrunners is never easy -- financial troubles and a change of leadership in 2013 nearly led to the youth league's closure -- and it's been tough building the program's numbers back up. Last year, Privette realized that the Roadrunners were going to fold unless someone stepped up. He took over the executive director role in January 2015. 

The youth league has an annual operating budget of just $12,000. It's not nearly enough to cover all the equipment and incidentals kids need on the field and off. So year after year, dollars come out of the pockets of program leaders like Privette, his Roadrunners partner Dave Satterwhite, parents and community supporters. 

On such a minimal budget, even the smallest things become a challenge. For example, providing water to the kids after practice costs $8/day -- not to mention a healthy snack. Privette says that anyone in the community who can pitch in can make a major difference to the team.

Like Privette, Evans is a volunteer who stepped up when he saw the need. Kingsessing's computer lab was created about ten years ago through the City's Keyspot initiative. That program currently funds a staffer for only fifteen hours per week, so unless someone volunteers to keep the lab open, hours are limited.

Evans, a Bok Technical High School alum who studied electrical work, spent almost 20 years as a telephone central office operator, working as a supervisor for Sprint and MCI. It's impossible to speak to him for more than a few minutes without realizing the vital, interdisciplinary nature of his work there. He's not only supervising computer time. He helps with homework assignments like papers and reports, and encourages youngsters to implement proper academic standards.

That can be as simple and as crucial as teaching kids "how to do their homework without plagiarizing," he explains or "how to use the [digital] resources but not be solely dependent on them," combining research with critical thinking.

He also helps community members identify jobs online, create resumes, confirm open positions and apply for work (tasks that are impossible to complete in the 30-60 minutes often allotted at library computers). In addition, he teaches informal computer and internet classes.

Currently, the second-floor Kingsessing Keyspot has 10 computers. It's open Monday through Friday from 1:30 - 3:30 p.m. for adults and 4 p.m. - 7 p.m. for kids, with help from Keyspot staffer Curri Stewart. Up to 40 kids use the center every day.

But the computer lab and the Roadrunners are only two pieces of the programming going on at the Center on any given day. There's a spacious first-floor workout room and boxing ring. (The boxing program under the Rev. Elvin Thompson and Mr. "Forty" Fletcher runs every weekday from 4 - 7 p.m.) There are after-school programs, dance practices, music groups, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, daycare, summer camp, martial arts classes and more. 

"Every inch of this building is used," insists Evans: from the lobby to the locker rooms to the arcade rooms to the second-floor stage and auditorium to the expansive courts and fields. 

Longtime leaders like Evans, Crews and Henry have a fierce pride in the value and autonomy of their programs. Evans recounts how a 2014 proposal from the Police Athletic League to house activities at the Kingsessing facility was met with stark opposition from Rec Center leaders and supporters who didn't want to see existing programming curtailed or shifted within the building. 

Henry points to the legacy of battling racism as part of what underpins Center leaders' determination. His own upbringing in southern Delaware happened under segregation, when he "couldn't go to white schools, couldn't eat in restaurants."

Segregation touched Kingsessing Recreation Center in those days, too: After the African-American children swam, "they would drain the pool and fill it back up again before the white kids got back in," recalls Henry.

"I think that's where a lot of the pride also comes from," he adds. "It's a deep history here."

"I didn't know that this rec center offered as much as they did," adds local mom Daaimah Smith, who lives near 61st and Eastwick. Her eight-year-old son Hasan is starting his first football season with the Roadrunners. She chose the program at Kingsessing because she was impressed by the staff's organization and attitude. 

"The coach is phenomenal," she says of Privette.

He's part of the next generation rising in Kingsessing.

"We have young men like Dontae," enthuses Henry. "We need young leadership to start stepping forward."

For his part, Privette recognizes that the current picture is a tough one, but that the services he helps provide are badly needed -- many kids don't have other outlets in school or in the neighborhood. 

"I'm up for the challenge, but at the same time, that's what it really is," he says, acknowledging the difficulties of running so many programs with the help of donated dollars and passionate volunteer hours. 

"I have fond memories of this place," concludes Evans. "And we want to keep it that way."

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On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.

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