West End Neighborhood House

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Making it OK to come out and play

WHYY – Radio Transcript

By Taunya English

Getting kids outdoors to exercise is part of a national plan – and First Lady Michelle Obama’s mission – to combat childhood obesity. From WHYY’s Health and Science Desk, Taunya English has the story of some Wilmington residents working to make sure their kids have a place to play.

The 2nd Street Warriors are up to bat, and Calvin Brown is throwing curve balls and chatter. Pastor Brown’s church is up the street and he owns the barbershop over on 3rd. So he’s sort of partial to the 3rd Street Knights today, but says he’s rooting for all the neighborhood kids.

Brown: They play a lot of Xbox 360, Playstation, nothing wrong with that. But we want to get the kids involved, I think this goes along with Michelle Obama’s plan of getting the kids back in shape.

Home field is William “Judy” Johnson Park, named for Delaware’s Negro League third baseman.

On this Saturday morning, the baseball diamond is freshly chalked for the first game of the newly formed Westside Youth League.

Brown: A lot of these kids they don’t play nothing anymore, and we’ve made ’em like TV athletes, which there’s no physical benefit for that.

To help children become more physically active, officials across the country are sizing up their neighborhoods. Health experts call it assessing “the built environment.”

Calistro: When you are in that community do you see healthy activities going on?

Paul Calistro leads the local neighborhood center, West End Neighborhood House.

Calistro: Some neighborhoods you see people jogging, rollerblading. People out walking their dogs? Do you see people pushing their strollers? It’s not happening on what I would refer to as our southern boundaries — from 4th Street to Lancaster, you see less of it.

That’s the Westside’s Hilltop area. Part of the problem is a shortage of open space.

Calistro says the average for an urban area like Wilmington is six acres of open space for every 1,000 people. The Hilltop neighborhood has about half an acre for every 1,000 people. Said differently, about a third of an acre for every 700 kids.

Calistro: Your home might be on a third of an acre. Imagine all 700 kids in the neighborhood trying to play on your one-third of an acre every day. Doesn’t work.

Civic leaders are mulling ways to give kids more places to be active. The new baseball league is part of the plan to make sure kids can play in the parks Wilmington has now.

Sherry McLean has lived across from Judy Johnson Park for more than 20 years.

Willauer: Some of the green space or outdoor space for playing that does exist isn’t safe or is not perceived as safe, so people don’t want to use it.

Affordable housing expert Christian Willauer says Westside kids spend a lot of their time indoors. Even the community center has a gym but no playground.

Willauer: Places where people can go out and have that kind of free play that everybody talks about being really important for children and for kind of developing skills in imagination, people just don’t have a place to go and do that, to really run and play.

Judy Johnson Park is Hilltop’s largest patch of green. But neighbor Frank Robinson says for a long time people haven’t trusted the park.

Robinson: Well, if you came here three years ago, you’d be diving over this table, for one, because somebody would have been done shot at somebody, and you’d see about 40, 50 people standing around here selling drugs and stuff.

Robinson is president of the West Side Community Action Committee.

Robinson: What happens is, first, you have to go up against a lot of drug dealers and not back down. The neighborhood decided to take a stand. Just cuz they’re a gang, so are we, only we’re a neighborhood gang.

Neighbors got city council to change the look of the park. When you’re rehabbing a park, perception is half the battle.

Sherry McLean lives in one of the row homes that watch over the park. She says the new bid to get kids – and their parents — to come out and play is actually an old idea.

In the early 70s, McLean pitched for her neighborhood softball team, the Liberettes.

Eleven-year-old Tatiyana Rivera tripled in the first game of the season.

McLean: And it used to draw the crowd because it was people up here that lived on the hill, and they would come out and support us. The men would, the women would, their friends. It used to be cool.

Twenty-three-year-old Stevenson Alexander is one of the young men who hangs out at the park. He’s at the sliding board with his 2-year-old twins Uriah and Aaliyah.

Alexander: To me it’s a good park. I just know we had one incident, they said somebody got shot over here, but beside that it’s been a good park. We come in here, Saturdays, Sundays, we play some basketball, relax and chill, that’s about it.

Back at the baseball diamond, Tatiyana thinks she’s a little too old to play. But Team Mom Ayanna Rivera — who happens to be Tatiyana’s real mom – put the 12-year-old in the line up anyway.

Ayanna Rivera: I’m gonna push her to stay on the team, they’ve got to be in something. Stay focused. It’s everybody’s beginning, and everyone needs a chance. They can do it.

Once the coaches figure out that Tatiyana is a lefty and move her to the other side of the batter’s box, her swing improves.

Tatiyana Rivera: I’m not really good at batting, but it turned out differently. I hit it far, and I got to third base.

The next match up between the 3rd Street Knights and 2nd Street Warriors is Thursday evening at six in Judy Johnson Park.