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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, Athletic and Martin Luther King Older Adult Center.

Olney Recreation Center is located at the very northeastern end of Olney in North Philadelphia, practically sandwiched between Oak Lane and Lawncrest.

“Say you’re coming from Lawncrest, the first thing you see when you come to Olney is this big place,” said facility supervisor Ed Carpenter. “So they call this the ‘Gateway to Olney.’”

Olney Rec has been a part of the neighborhood for about 60 years, and last week the center received good news. Per Philly.com, it’s is one of several facilities included in the preliminary list of sites for the first round of the city’s $500 million Rebuild project to restore parks, libraries, playgrounds and rec centers.

Carpenter and Assistant Recreation Leader Janelle Harris both expressed their hope for the center being included in the first round of renovations.

Let’s take a look at what makes Olney Rec stand out:

The Specs

Location: 6001 A St.

Neighborhood: Olney (pronounced “Ah-leh-knee”)

When it was built: 1957

Size: Sits on 2.3 acres

How many people it serves: 100 people inside and about 125 outside, depending on the day

Features include: Outdoor hockey court, gymnasium, after-school room, football field, two multi-purpose rooms, two ballfields, two sports fields, two tennis courts, four basketball courts and two playgrounds

Number of employees and volunteers: Six employees and no volunteers

Head of the center: Ed Carpenter


Olney Rec has seen many demographic changes throughout the years. What was once a neighborhood made up of mostly Irish and Germans is now a hub for mostly African American, Latino and Asian communities.

“It’s a very multicultural neighborhood,” Harris said, “Literally a melting pot.”

“The neighborhood is completely different than what it was when I was growing up here,” Harris said. “You could come up [to Olney Rec] and see no kids really up here.”

Harris, who has lived in Olney for about 20 years, added that now there are “a ton” of kids at the center from all different backgrounds.

Program offerings

The Olney Eagles Youth Organization, which offers basketball, football, track and cheerleading programs, has been housed at the center for decades. Olney Rec is the organization’s home field and clubhouse for meetings.

The other program housed in the center is Positive Image Youth Organization, a nonprofit that encourages involvement in academics and sports. The organization’s AAU basketball league holds weekly practices and a winter, spring and summer league at the center.

“If you want to be in [Positive Image] you gotta ‘toe the line’—grades and everything,” Carpenter said.

Other programs include:

  • football
  • basketball
  • baseball
  • softball
  • volleyball
  • after-school program
  • art club/ceramics
  • yoga
  • Girl Scouts (new—Thursday nights)
  • Zumba
  • summer day camp

What makes Olney Rec unique

The Olney Eagles Youth Organization began about 50 years ago, and has been using Olney Rec for years. The organization runs football, basketball, track and cheerleading programs to keep kids active.

The basketball program practices in the rec center’s gym on Thursday and Friday evenings.

Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Bruce Harmon, 55, has been with the youth organization since 1999. He started as an assistant equipment manager and made his way through the ranks to his position today as the organization’s head coach and football commissioner.

The football program breaks up kids from ages 5 to 14 into different teams based on age and weight, and holds practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings on the field behind the rec center. Harmon said the football program has won about 20 to 30 championships so far.

Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

The organization has been a stepping stone for many young football players in the city. Carolina Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley played football for Olney Eagles in the early 2000s, and Harmon said he recently donated $1,500 to the organization.

“Our goal is to just keep the kids busy,” he said, “Keep them from getting into stuff they shouldn’t be getting into,” Harmon said.

The organization’s clubhouse is in the center’s basement, and “Dave’s Shack” — the concession stand used for football games — is right behind the center. It’s named after former Olney Eagles president and Janelle Harris’ father, David Harris, who helped build the stand and cooked food for it. He passed away two years ago, but was known by many as “Coach Dave.”

One cool thing

Olney Rec has a big multi-purpose room with two rows of curtains to split up the space for different programs. Long rows of mirrors cover the walls of the multi-purpose room that is used for zumba, yoga and community meetings.

Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

The rec staff is working to set up another multi-purpose room in a space that was previously used for storage, with the hopes of using it for more programs and community meetings. Carpenter said the new district manager is on board.

The new multi-purpose room was once a weight room assembled with the help of former Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins and other players in 2008.

The mural in the new multi-purpose room. Credit: Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

The Phillies helped renovate the room in a single day, installing a rock climbing wall and exercise equipment, signing baseballs, and painting murals with the community members and staff from Mural Arts.

Baseballs signed by a couple Phillies players in 2008. Credit: Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

Bonus: The rec center has a working payphone that is serviced once a month.

Stuff for kids

The after school program runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the 15 to 20 kids follow a schedule when they’re there. The program begins with homework help and reading, until about 4 p.m., when the kids have a snack. After their bellies are full, the kids do arts and crafts or play games for about half an hour. To close out the night, kids either play outside or in the gym.

The arts and crafts projects from the after school program can be seen all around the room. Credit: Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

“They’re teaching themselves how to play chess right now,” Harris said. “One of the boys knows how to play, so he’s been teaching the rest of the kids.”

The children in the program are usually between 10 to 11 years old, but the program accepts kids of all ages.

What the rec center needs

“Once you see the whole building you’re going to say, ‘Yeah, they do need a revamp,’” Carpenter said. “It’s useable, but you could say it almost looks like 1957.”

Carpenter and Harris listed off improvements the center needs like a new roof, gym, sprinkler system, basketball court, football field and additions like a computer lab, track, and swings in the playground area.

“We don’t have swings,” Carpenter said. “But the reason why we don’t have swings is because the turf under [the swings] is tore up.”

Due to safety reasons, the city can’t put in new swings until the entire matting is replaced, which Carpenter said would cost about $35,000.

Harmon said the center’s basement—used for the Eagles’ meetings and extra equipment—often floods after heavy rainfalls due to a plumbing issue.

“It would be great help,” he said, “if we could get Rebuild done.”