Happy hours


The slams, thuds and bangs produced inside United Communities Southwark House might shock the average passerby, but it is the sound of progress.

Donning blue helmets and black pads, about 10 children whiz by on skateboards, each demonstrating tricks foreign to them only three months ago. Twelve-year-old Jalil Wright, a fan of skateboard video games, now can mimic those computerized moves. Performing a "body variable," Wright plants two feet on the skateboard, leaps high in the air, and lands on the ‘board in a reverse position. He is surrounded by others who may not be at the same level (evident by falls to the wooden floor), but they immediately get up and try again — with delight.

Wright now has his own skateboard, and his neighborhood buddies have confirmed his development. "They say I’m pretty good," the resident of 14th and Christian streets said. "Now they all want to skateboard, too."

Instructing the highly energetic bunch is volunteer A.J. Kohn, a professional freestyle skateboarder who first began this "lifestyle activity" in his early teens.

Now 28, Kohn is cognizant of skateboarding’s benefits — many of which shatter misconceptions all ‘boarders are "uneducated punks," the college graduate said.

"Skateboarding, for a lot of us, it saved our lives in a lot of ways," he said. "For me, it kept me out of a lot of trouble. It kept me out of doing drugs. I wanted to be really good at skateboarding. I didn’t want to do anything that would inhibit my skateboarding abilities."

Kohn hopes to relay this message to the kids he supplies with skateboards and pads — thanks to his industry contacts — every Tuesday. Mirroring life, skateboarding requires work.

"It never gets old. There’s always something you can improve upon," Kohn said. "Skateboarding takes a lot of time and perseverance to become good at any one aspect."

Rather than simply being watched over during after-school hours, youths at Southwark House, 101 Ellsworth St., are both active and entertained. What’s the secret?

The answer lies in the volunteers.

The After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP) is responsible for matching a helper’s interests with existing after-school sites and programs willing to implement something new.

"If you wanted to run a yoga club, we would find a place that would like to have one," Peter English, ASAP’s project coordinator, said. "We find that letting people choose what they want to share with kids means they’re far more likely to be engaged, be active, be excited about getting involved."

The partnership has 75 volunteers in city programs and has reached more than 9,000 youths since its 2002 inception. Besides passing a criminal background check, helpers must give at least an hour of their time a week for about 10 weeks.

While important, tutoring and homework help are not offered by ASAP, which instead implements arts, music and recreational activities, English said.

"The success of any individual club hinges on the interest, the desire of the given volunteer," he added. "Overwhelmingly, the sites we connect them with are very positive about what they bring."

Miles Magbie, Southwark House’s site director, said the skateboarding activities that began in November are a nice addition to the tutoring, science program, computer lab and art instruction through Fleisher Art Memorial that nearly 50 students partake in as a whole.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if every kid in the program would not want to do [skateboarding]," Magbie said, adding his site currently has three ASAP volunteers on hand.

Since juvenile crimes spike between 3 and 4 p.m., keeping youths busy during this time is a great deterrent, said English, who estimated 50,000 kids citywide are unsupervised for more than 20 hours a week.

"A lot of these kids need this supervision," he said. "They want to connect with an adult."

While the city offers beneficial programs, Magbie said one of the problems is they are being housed in outdated facilities.

Despite the setbacks, creative endeavors are continually encouraging children to try something new. Just ask Commander Scott Rogerson of the U.S. Coast Guard, who initiated Southwark House’s first physical fitness program about six months ago.

Rogerson is stationed at a nearby office at Washington Avenue and Columbus Boulevard and coordinates volunteer efforts for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Last summer, he looked into doing some personal volunteer work in the community and came across ASAP.

"I just thought it’s just so wonderful that two blocks [from] where I worked was this community center that could use a little bit of my time," Rogerson said.

After intriguing Magbie with his ideas, the commander is now typically at the site on Wednesdays.

"I really enjoyed physical activities when I was younger, and I still do. In today’s world of video games and TV, it’s so easy for kids not to get that action," Rogerson said.

"It’s more than just throwing a basketball and jumping rope," Magbie said of Rogerson’s program. "He actually gets involved with them during the games. He’s able to become more engaged in that process."

After a brief warm-up, the commander has the children participate in sports, including flag-tag, dodgeball and soccer. Just tossing around a football has lit up a child’s face on occasion, he said.

While getting a workout, Rogerson makes sure his cadets are absorbing the Coast Guard’s key concepts of teamwork, respect and fair play.

"I’ve seen a nice growth and maturation process occur with a lot of these kids," he said, "where early on, the tendency might be to be very competitive or not always to listen or play fairly. Little by little, I’ve seen some of those situations dissolve."

Rogerson also has seen the personal benefits of volunteering and suggests others try and find the hero inside themselves.

"There are so many opportunities for people in the city of Philadelphia to make a difference," he said. "Everybody has gifts and talents that can certainly be utilized and enjoyed. I would encourage folks to find that opportunity."

For more information on volunteering with the After School Activities Partnerships, call 215-545-3077 or visit www.phillyasap.org.