Former Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin has always been hands-on when it comes to the six-year-old work of his Make The World Better Foundation, which renovates city parks alongside the neighbors that surround them. He goes to planning meetings in falling-down rec centers, talks and listens to neighbors, cuts ribbons, raises funds, lends his face and time to a cause he feels passionate about in part because of his own childhood spent reveling in the parks near his Detroit home.
Still, it was a surprising delight, on a June morning this summer, to see Barwin crouched amidst a group of elementary school-aged girls in a South Philly gym, pencil in hand, feverishly playing a game of “human bingo.” “Who here is left-handed?” Barwin called out, as he and his partner—a young African-American girl who warned him she doesn’t read so well and so would need his help—scrambled across the floor to mark on their cards the name of a gymnast who raised her (left) hand. Alas, Barwin and his partner did not get Bingo.
He did get something else, though: a glimpse into the world of Vare Recreation Center in Point Breeze, the site of MTWB’s latest park renovation project. With a $9 million budget funded by ReBuild, Vare is by far the biggest project MTWB has taken on; its first, Ralph Brooks Park, in comparison, cost $750,000. The foundation has also overhauled Smith Playground, also in South Philly, and West Kensington’s Waterloo.
On September 5th, Barwin will host MTWB’s 5th annual concert to raise funds for the foundation and its work, at Dell Music Center. Baltimore indie-rockers Future Islands will headline the concert, which also features Strand of Oaks and Karl Blau. (The Citizen is sponsoring free SEPTA rides to the concert.)
Vare is MTWB’s most ambitious project in another way, as well: its effort to be community-forward in the way it works. To Barwin—a former Citizen contributor—this means more than just inviting the public in to talk about ideas and comment on the plans. It means first understanding fully the life of the rec center. “A lot of times the community comes to a meeting with architects, who show them drawings, but the architect is in the power position,” Barwin said in June. “We want to flip how it’s done.”
Vare is a neighborhood hub, with a usually full-to-capacity swimming pool in the summer, a thriving competitive gymnastics program all year round, a football team, soccer clubs, out-of-school and adult programs. It is, also, falling apart. It briefly closed in 2017 because of structural issues, and parts of the building are now held together by chains and beams; the swimming pool is emptied and filled every night and morning, because the fence is low enough for kids to hop over it at night. Its struggles, and its vibrancy, offer an opportunity to remake something that fully speaks to the community.
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Which is how, in June, Barwin came to hang out with the young gymnasts; the rest of that morning his team (not including Barwin) joined the girls in tumbling. A couple of MTWB members attended teen summer camp a few weeks ago; this week, they participated in a practice for the Sigma Sharks football team, and spent a night bowling at nearby PEP Bowl with the planning committee, made up of residents and staff. In a couple weeks, they’ll be visiting the basketball program.
Over the next six to 12 weeks, MTWB will start more formal planning workshops, with a loose conceptual vision slated for early November. The final design plan may take up to a year, with groundbreaking expected in the fall of 2020.
September’s fundraiser will help raise money for the work of MTWB beyond just Vare. Barwin says he wants to have three or four projects going at any one time—a step up from the foundation’s early days—including continuing involvement in Smith Playground, maintaining a youth program MTWB started at Waterloo, and investing more in public art of the sort they helped bring to Smith: a sculpture of an African-American girl playing basketball, the first statue of its kind in the city.
First though, there’s the show itself. “I’m hoping it’s a great night, we raise a ton of money and people learn about we’ve been doing in Philly the last six years and will continue doing to help communities and their parks,” Barwin says.Photo header by SSM Photography