Genesis Stone-Burton, left, and Iadalis Saunders-Boone practice their skateboard skills at Vare Rec Center

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Billy Penn is highlighting some of Philadelphia’s recreation centers, ranging from Southwest to the Northeast and including spaces that were recently renovated and others that have long lists of needs. So far, we’ve profiled Kingsessing and Happy Hollow.

Vare, one of the city’s oldest recreation centers, has become a hub for the Grays Ferry neighborhood. Kids can either participate in one of the many programs offered or just go there to hang out. As long as the doors are open, the community is always welcome.

Like many other rec centers in the city, Vare has a long list of programs. After taking a tour-led by Gina Batavick, director of the center-two programs seem to stand out: basketball and gymnastics. Both programs have had their success, but renovations could help them grow.

Let’s take a look at what makes Vare so important to the community:

The specs

Location: 2600 Morris St.

Neighborhood: Grays Ferry

When it was built: 1916

Size: Sits on 3.6 acres

How many people it serves: 200 to 300, depending on the day

Features: basketball gym, gymnastics gym, baseball field, sports field, playground, teen center, art room, auditorium, computer lab (job search, resume help, computer games, web access), fitness center, arcade room, outdoor basketball court and a swimming pool (available until Aug. 25)

Number of employees and volunteers: Four permanent staff, several seasonal employees, and five volunteers

Head of the center: Gina Batavick


Vare celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Many rec centers in the city have already reached this milestone or are close to it. Jennifer Crandall, public relations manager for Department of Parks & Recreation, pointed out that Philly rec centers built around the same time all have a familiar look to them: steps leading to a big entryway and a long hallway connecting the gyms. But each is unique to its community.

In the late 1900s, Grays Ferry was primarily made up of Irish and Italian immigrants. Though the neighborhood always identified as working class, the shift of its racial makeup made it one of Philadelphia’s most infamous neighborhoods for racial tension. Vare has been a neutral area for kids in the neighborhood.

Outside of the rec center, some groups of kids still don’t mix with each other, but Batavick said for the most part they leave behind “neighborhood drama” when they walk in.

“It’s like 27th street and 24th street — they don’t get along,” she said. “Tasker street doesn’t get along with the other streets.”

But Vare has had kids from around the city visit for programs like summer basketball league without any problems.

The rec center also has a good relationship with the 17th Police District officers, who regularly stop by to check their logs.

Program offerings

Vare offers a wide range of programs for the community’s enjoyment and well-being. About a week ago, the center finished up summer camp (ages 6 through 12) and teen camp (ages 14 to 17). Clinton Mike Carter, team supervisor for teen camp, organized several trips and events for the group this summer including the Allentown amusement park Dorney Park, boating at Penn’s Landing, Chili’s Restaurant in South Philly to practice dining room etiquette, and Venice Island PARC in Manayunk to see a theatre show. The teen camp went all over the place.

When the afterschool program resumes, kids  ages 6 to 12 will get homework help, do arts and crafts, play sports, go on trips and learn about nutrition and fitness.

Other programs include:

  • basketball leagues
  • Baseball
  • Gymnastics
  • tee ball
  • tot basketball
  • youth fitness training
  • computer lab
  • sew fun club
  • arts and crafts
  • life skills
  • movie night Thursdays
  • video game night
  • hula hoop Mondays
  • line dance Thursdays

What makes Vare unique

At Vare you don’t have to participate in a program to spend time there. Kids can come in and out as many times as they want “instead of them hanging on the corner they’re in here in a safe environment,” Batavick said.

The teen center on the first floor is open for kids to chill, play video games, watch TV or enjoy some free play in the gym.

One cool thing

Yahiyah Devaughn, left, and Elianna Olsen practice gymnastics at Vare Rec Center Credit: Jordan Gunselman / Billy Penn

Throughout the years, basketball at Vare has been a successful and favored program among the community. Vare’s 16 and under basketball team was the first to win the Parks and Rec City-wide Basketball Championship three years in a row from 2014 to 2016. But the gymnastics program is making its mark as well.

This past May, two gymnasts from the program ranked in the top 100 at a USA Gymnastics PA Xcel State Championship. Makayla Collins, 12, from Grays Ferry ranked 29th and Amaya Rodriguez, 11, from South Philly ranked 34th at the competition, which was held at the Erie Gymnastics Center in the northwest corner of the state.

Back in the gymnastics gym, Collins was casually doing some back handsprings on the beam while her peers watched her. Later, she moved to the trampoline to perform some more gravity-defying moves.

The gym was completely filled with girls taking turns on the beam, swinging from the bars, or taking a moment to help each other out. A poster of the 2016 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team hung on the wall, while several girls talked and giggled about Simone Biles.

“They’re so dedicated,” Batavick said. “[We’re] constantly repairing rips in their hands and they just come right back.”

The gymnastics summer camp had 55 girls enrolled this year, and the youngest gymnasts there were six 6.

The gymnastics program’s first session runs from September to December, and the second session runs from January to May for beginner, intermediate and advanced groups.

Stuff for kids

On video game night — Thursdays and Fridays from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. September to June — TVs are lined up back to back with four to five gaming systems hooked up to them. Kids choose which games they want to play, like the football video game Madden NFL. Scheduling is tricky, because 15 to 20 kids show up each night, but tournaments are sometimes organized for the gamers to play against each other.

Batavick said some kids will come in around 6 p.m. asking if it’s time for video game night yet.

What the rec center needs

Batavick said structural repairs on the building are first priority. A fence was put up outside to protect people from the bricks falling off the exterior of the building. The fence keeps kids away from the fall zone, but it’s only a temporary solution. Vare was mentioned in a February report from about aging rec centers:

“…staffers board up broken windows with plywood. They have stopped counting the cracks that run like fault lines in the walls. In the center’s sprawling basement rooms, spaces once filled with laughter and life, the ceramics kiln and bike shop sit shuttered, as if everyone just got up one day and never returned.”

Batavick’s wish-list for Vare reflects what the 100-year-old building needs and what the community wants.

Batavick said a state of the art basketball gym would give the players more out-of-bound room and higher ceilings. She added if gymnastics had a bigger room it would help grow the program.

“If I could wave my magic wand,” she said, “I would definitely give [gymnastics] a bigger area.