Neighbors like to refer to Northeast Philadelphia’s Olney Recreation Center as the “Gateway to Olney.”
Its nickname is well-earned. The 61-year-old building has a long history as the hub for the community, a melting pot of both immigrants and native Philadelphians, new families and lifelong residents, young parents in their first homes and generations of relatives all living in the same house.
The Gateway to Olney
“Right when you come into the Olney neighborhood we’re the first big building,” says Emily Coleman about the rec center’s moniker as a gateway. A Philadelphia Parks and Recreation employee, Emily helps oversee programming there. “We have a big presence in the neighborhood. We’re a hub for this community.”
Recently, the City announced Olney Rec as the second project to receive an investment from Rebuild, the plan to improve parks, rec centers, playgrounds, and libraries across Philadelphia.
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 begin after the tax has been upheld by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court. At every level so far, the courts have agreed with the City and upheld the tax as a legal and constitutional revenue source.
These projects can’t wait, though. The communities these rec centers serve need help right now.
In the coming weeks, Rebuild will announce more projects, like Olney, that will start this year using already approved funds in the FY2018 Capital Budget. These are funds in the City’s budget that have already been allocated for brick and mortar projects.
“We know that there is so much potential in this place [but] things could be done to include more people. We should be a place where anybody in the community can go if they need services,” Emily adds. “We don’t have any public computers. If we could get a small computer lab the community would really appreciate it. I’m asked about it a lot, so there certainly is a need for it.”
The rec center offers free and low-cost programming to the neighborhood. Kids can sign up for Olney’s after school program, basketball, football, softball, arts and crafts, cheerleading, Girl Scouts, performing arts programs, and more.
It’s not just for kids, either. Yoga and ceramics are also available and open to all ages.
“We’d like to offer even more programming for adults,” said Emily, who also teaches the ceramics class. “A lot of the programs are at capacity and the parents will accompany their children to the programs. We’re trying to bring in more adult fitness classes like Zumba — something for the adults to do while their kids are at their programs.”
The rec center also functions as a hub for the entire community.
“We have a church group that comes in every year and puts on an Easter egg hunt and basketball tournament,” Emily says. “They also give away boxes of food to those in need.”
The Olney Eagles Youth Organization, a youth sports league for kids with adult volunteers and coaches, also helps to create a culture of trust, service, and healthy activity throughout the rec center, too.
The Eagles do community cleanups, help new rec center workers settle in, and make sure everyone feels welcome.
“They do a lot here,” Emily explains. “They know so many kids in the neighborhood because so many kids have come through their sports program.” Touching on the value of grassroots community organizations strengthening the entire neighborhood, she says that the Eagles add something special to Olney.
“It’s nice to have them around,” Emily adds. “They’re an extra set of adults to make the kids feel like they’ve got somebody if they need somebody.”
While Olney Rec Center is already woven into the fabric of the community, it needs help and support to continue to serve kids, families, and neighborhood residents. “We’re at a point where we can only do so much [with what we have],” Emily explains.
“We’re ready to be upgraded. We need a new gym floor, a new roof, basketball and tennis courts, and computers for the community.”
Because so many of the center’s visitors are lifelong neighborhood residents, Emily says improvements are about increasing equity and access to opportunity.
“We have people who come to this rec center who have never left this neighborhood. They work here, live here. Getting these upgrades and adding a computer lab would make the world more accessible to the neighborhood.”