Located on the 2600 block of Morris Street in South Philadelphia, Vare Recreation Center has been a fixture in the neighborhood for more than 100 years. Even though the building shows the wear and tear of time, the rooms inside are more alive than ever.
“We serve a lot of families that have been in the neighborhood for generations,” said Gina Batavick, Rec Leader 3 with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “There’s also a lot of new families moving in and a lot of new construction happening in the Point Breeze area, but mostly, the families and kids we serve have been coming here for years.”
In October 2017, Vare was closed due to serious concerns about the structural integrity of the 102 year old facility. The closure caused an immediate outcry from the community. Their efforts were successful and now the building is reopened but the upstairs remains closed due to structural concerns. The improvements, however, are temporary and Vare may need to close again without more permanent fixes.
Recently, the City announced Vare Recreation Center as the first project to receive an investment from Rebuild. In the coming weeks, Rebuild will announce more projects that will start this year using already approved funds in the FY2018 Capital Budget. The majority of Rebuild’s budget will come from bond proceeds that will be repaid by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. A larger set of projects will be able to begin after the tax has been upheld by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the community’s support,” Gina said. “We have a strong advisory council and some key community members who advocate for us to make sure that the center is staffed correctly and that a majority of our programs are free or very low cost. We want to make sure that if a kid wants to participate in a program, they can.”
One of Vare’s most well-known programs is their gymnastics program, which currently has 115 girls registered, 15 of who will compete in the state competition this year. The program is coached by Kristin Smerker, who is also the founder of the program, and Natasha Rogers, a former participant in the Vare gymnastics program.
That kind of continued legacy is common at Vare. Teens from the teen summer camp program return year after year until they are old enough to become youth workers for the program.
“Everyday the kids make the choice to be here,” said Clinton Carter, the head of the teen summer camp program who has worked at Vare for 12 years. “They feel safe. They feel comfortable here.”
One of the most impactful trips the teens make is a field trip to Temple University Hospital with the Cradle to Grave program. The program brings teens into the hospital trauma bays and uses real-life scenarios to educate them about the physical and emotional realities of gun violence.
“The neighborhoods where most of these kids live is very gang heavy, and this program always has a big impact on them,” Gina added. “Last time they were there they met with a mother who was at the hospital to claim her son’s body. You could tell it was a really powerful experience for these kids.”
With so many program offerings, it’s hard to believe that Vare is functioning at a limited capacity due to the building’s structural issues. They used to run most of their programming out of five rooms; now, with the second floor closed due to damage, they operate out of two rooms. They’ve taken it in stride, but the need for improvements is clear.
Another area that needs help? The basketball courts.
“We used to host an outdoor men’s basketball league in the summer,” Gina explained. “About 100 community members would come out to watch. We partnered with the police department to support the event. They would provide water for the players and police coverage for the games. We had about 15 teams that would compete.”
The games haven’t happened in two summers mostly due to funding — the basketball courts need to be resurfaced. Until they are, big cracks in the asphalt make it too dangerous to encourage competitive gameplay.
But the center’s leaders want to bring back that kind of community-building event. There’s a hunger to have a building that matches the vigor of the community. Renovations and improvements to Vare would mean more room for programs, and ultimately, more room for kids and families to enroll in programs.
“Vare is a place where people can’t just hear about it, they have to experience it,” Clinton explained. “When you look at the programs and the relationships that form here you start to see a whole different thing. If you want to know it, you have to be a part of it.”