Every summer in Philadelphia, hundreds of residential streets are blocked off from vehicular traffic to give children a safe place to gather, play, and eat a free, nutritious meal. It happens through the Playstreets program, which is put on by the city’s Parks & Recreation department. But it can’t happen without volunteers to make it happen, and Parks & Rec is currently making one last push to recruit them for the summer.
“We’re requesting volunteers because there’s a lot of uncertainty around this summer,” said the department’s spokesperson, Maita Soukup, who noted that the program is one way the city distributes healthy foods for kids to eat throughout the summer. The meals are in part designed to replace the lack of school meals in the summer, and the program’s funding comes from the USDA.
“Since this is a USDA program funded by the federal government, some years we’ve had 350 Playstreets and others up to 500,” said Soukup. “We’ve never had a problem getting the funding.”
The way it works is that volunteers are responsible for blocking off the street from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., setting up play equipment and distributing a lunch time meal at noon and an afternoon snack at 3 p.m. The food gets delivered every morning by the city and the play equipment gets delivered to each block at the beginning of the program, which will run from June 15 until Aug. 25. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a bit of uncertainty about how the play equipment part of the program will be executed since the “gathering” aspect of the initiative is something people of all ages aren’t supposed to be doing at the moment. Soukup said that for this reason, this part of the program will likely look a bit different.
“We’re looking at play equipment that encourages more individual play,” she said. “Hula hoops are just one example.”
Deborah Forrest, a past Playstreets volunteer in Kensington, said that she volunteered in an effort to help support and educate the children on her block.
“We taught the children how to have respect and discipline for each other and for their superiors, like their teachers and elderly neighbors,” said Forrest. “The children come from all over the neighborhood.”
Forrest said that in years past, meals have included ham and cheese sandwiches, milk, juice and pretzels. Her block has gotten friendly visits from PAL police officers to interact with the children.
“All of it brings motivation to the children letting them know that somebody cares for them,” she said. “Consideration and care.”
Volunteers must be available all day, but they’re not necessarily responsible for the children.
“It isn’t like babysitting,” Soukup said.
For more information about becoming a Playstreets volunteer and submitting your block for approval, visit phila.gov/programs/playstreets.
To have your block considered, it must have a block resident volunteer to be a Playstreet supervisor. Additionally, it must not be within two blocks of another approved Playstreet, playground or rec center, be a small, one-way street (no numbered streets will be considered unless it is a dead end).
If more than 25 percent of residents on the block submit an objection to the creation of the Playstreet, it will not be considered. The deadline to apply is June 5.
“Families are facing a lot of uncertainties,” Soukup said. “Giving kids a meal shouldn’t be one of them. We really need volunteers to make it possible.”