For almost seventy years the playground at Second and Oley in the city has been a place for children and families to come together to play and celebrate life.
Crystal Gilmore Harris recounted memories of the park. “It was one the places to hang out during my teenage years.” There are found memories of block parties, family gatherings, and story times. But as Crystal and others noted, in recent years the playground had become “a negative space” with many bad actions. It was no longer a spot where children could feel comfortable.
David Freeman, who lives across the street, described the park as, “everything you could think of bad; bullet holes in the backboards, it was dirty and littered with broken glass, drug paraphernalia and graffiti.”
Local teenager, Monia Barna summed it up when she said, “it use to look like the ghetto.” But by noon on Saturday, April 24, it was hard to envision the Second and Oley playground as a negative space. There was no graffiti. The pavilion had a fresh coat of paint. A colorful mural of the world was finished. There were kids on the swings and the slides and basketball and football games being played. And there were smiles; lots and lots of smiles.
John and Chad quickly realized that it’s more than just a park. It’s a sense of pride and ownership for the community. It brings together children, teens, adults, politicians, and law enforcement from both the city and the county, working together for a common cause. It’s the ability to change people lives.
Gilmore and Henne were involved in every aspect of the project. They helped with the design. They recruited family, friends, and fellow Wilson graduate and Olympian swimmer Kristy Kowal to help. They gathered sponsors to provide their services or products free of charge or significantly discounted for the day. The sponsors included Grande Construction, Redner’s Warehouse Markets, Sal’s Landscaping, Sports Builders, Quality Disposal Service, Lucky’s Asphalt Sealing and Custom Apparel Plus.
John and Chad planned all of the day’s activities and entertainment, including John performing the theme song “Stand Up!” and Reading’s own 11-year-old DeJa Ellison, a stand-out singer who gave her own touching rendition of “Reading State of Mind” based on the song “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” by Alicia Keyes.
They put a lot of work into the day’s events, but John and Chad are quick to tell you this isn’t their park; this is the community’s park. They helped fund the clean up, they made it happen. As Kristy Kowal said, “It took someone like John and Chad to get it done.” This is a great start, but the work isn’t over. In many ways it’s just beginning. The success of this project isn’t what happened on Saturday. “It’s what happens eight months from now, a year from now,” said Gilmore.
Reading Deputy Chief of Police Mark Talbot recognizes that sustainable crime reduction comes through projects like this and that the impact is already being felt. The neighborhood has started to feel the change.
Debra Freeman, David’s mother, said, “the cleanup has increased their pride in the neighborhood.” Other’s noticed too, cars were slowing down to look at the park. She said, “You don’t know how much we appreciate this. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Local teenager Devon Martin said, “I have a whole lot of respect for the community for doing something about it. Before, they would just ignore it. There used to be negative activity here but people will see that it’s not that type of park anymore.”
Monia said how beautiful it was, and her friend Kiara Keating wanted to say “thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
To make lasting change it’s important that the community takes ownership, and Gilmore and Henne made sure of that. After helping with the cleanup they had everyone in the neighborhood sign a pledge; kids and adults.
It’s posted at the entrance of the park. John told the neighborhood that “he and Chad are watching, the police are watching, the community is watching.”
They expect them to take care of their park and to keep it clean. If there’s graffiti, the fund will buy them the paint to cover it, but it’s their responsibility. And they have embraced this plan.
The neighbors have pride in the park again and they know it’s up to them to keep it looking good. No one has more pressure to keep that promise than David. John put him in charge and he calls him regularly to see what’s happening. If you visit the park you’ll see David; there’s a sculpture of him and his family looking over the park.