North Philly’s brand new Older Adult Center includes line dancing, billiards and ancestry workshops

And it’s 30 years in the making

Lillie Jones (center), who has been line dancing for 12 years, steps front and center during Chiquita Smith's (right) class.

Lillie Jones (center), who has been line dancing for 12 years, steps front and center during Chiquita Smith's (right) class.

Angela Gervasi / Billy Pen
michaela winberg

Billy Penn is highlighting some of Philadelphia’s recreation centers, ranging from Southwest to the Northeast. We’re including spaces that were recently renovated and others that have long lists of needs. We’ve already featured Kingsessing, Happy Hollow, Vare and Athletic Rec Center.

Older North Philadelphians started asking for their own recreation center decades ago.

Jacqueline Maldonado, the director of the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center, said she estimates the seniors started lobbying for their own public recreational space long before John Street first became mayor in 2000 — when he was still the neighborhood councilman.

That’s why it was such a triumph for so many North Philadelphians when the Martin Luther King Recreation Center expanded in August. Before that, children, adults and the elderly shared one facility on Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 22nd Street.

Now, older adults have their own space; the MLK Older Adult Center opened across the street from the original facility on Aug. 28 specifically to serve people ages 55 and older.

“It was discussed for many years, and they finally started construction about a year ago,” Maldonado said. “They’ve been waiting years for this center to open.”

The specs

Location: 2100 W. Cecil B. Moore Ave.

Neighborhood: North Central

When it was built: 2017

Size: 10,000 square feet

How many people it serves: 100 per day

Features include: billiards room, computer room, fitness classes, arts and crafts, full-service cafeteria with free lunch every day

Number of employees and volunteers: six staff members, two trainees and 80 volunteers

Head of the center: Jacqueline Maldonado

History

North Philadelphia’s older adults started lobbying for their own recreation center nearly 30 years ago. Ground was officially broken on the facility in June 2016, and the $4.3 million center opened in August.

Even after the center was built, the brand new facility sat vacant for months before it was actually opened to the public. There was a “premature” ribbon-cutting ceremony for MLK Older Adult Center in April before the city received its certificate of occupancy to take ownership of the facility from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Eager seniors had to wait four months after the ceremony to actually use the new center.

“It was a battle to get this facility,” said Barbara Gillette, the center’s director of older adult services. “They clearly deserve it.”

MLK Older Adult Center pool table
Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Program offerings

Older adults are more competitive than you might think, Maldonado said. A decent amount of the center’s programming focuses on fitness. The center also participates in a city-wide billiards tournament every year, which Gillette insists they always win.

Here’s a list of MLK’s monthly programming:

  • Billiards
  • Poetry group
  • Arts and crafts classes
  • Bible class
  • Bingo
  • Crochet group
  • “Tracing Your Roots” ancestry workshop
  • Silver Sneakers fitness classes
  • Beginner’s line-dancing
  • Advanced line-dancing
  • Fitness classes
  • Zumba

What makes MLK unique

The MLK Older Adult Center is fundamentally different from almost all recreations centers in Philadelphia for one main reason: the population it serves.

Maldonado said the most unique — and the most rewarding — part of her job is working with the elderly.

“They’re just full of history,” Maldonado said. “You can learn so much from them. They enjoy coming here and spending time with their friends. They really look forward to it. If for any reason don’t make it here one day, they’re so disappointed.”

“It feels good to be able to assist them, to sit with them and have a conversation,” she added. “Some people live alone and we’re all they have.”

Members of MLK Older Adult Center spin, kick and slide at the center's line dancing class.

Members of MLK Older Adult Center spin, kick and slide at the center's line dancing class.

Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

One cool thing

The most popular programming at the MLK Older Adult Center might surprise you.

Maldonado said the weekly line-dancing classes — held in the fitness room on Fridays at 10 a.m. — are “a very sought-after event” among the seniors.

“They’re so serious about it,” Maldonado said. “You really have to know what you’re doing. They’re on point with every step, so coordinated.”

“I think it makes them feel young, being able to get in there and do all the moves, interact with their peers,” Maldonado added. “They look forward to it every week.”

Stuff for kids

Full disclosure: this place isn’t really meant for kids. Membership is only available to people ages 55 and older, and all the programming is geared toward the elderly. Maldonado said she’s working on implementing some intergenerational programming, but there’s nothing concrete set up yet.

Plus, the original MLK Rec Center across the street is still open to serve people under 55 years old.

What the rec center needs

At the MLK Older Adult Center, Maldonado feels lucky. Most recreation center directors in the city are responsible for maintaining old facilities and lobbying for increased funding and resources.

It took a village to actually get this center open, but now that the brand new facility is finally in use, Maldonado said there’s nothing else she needs right now.

“Everyone’s been so great with getting this center up and running,” she said. “We have a brand new center, all new furniture and membership is increasing. We’re blessed.”