Love your mom and your park, squared

Moms across South Philadelphia love their park. Their sons, daughters, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, and family members love them, too, but for a mother concerned for the well-being of her children, a nearby park can be an absolute blessing in their lives. With Love Your Park Week (May 7-14) and Mother’s Day (May 8) on the horizon, SPR decided to find some mothers who are bringing programming, time, energy, and love to their community park, and it wasn’t hard.

In fact at Stinger Square, 3200 Dickinson St., in Grays Ferry, they’ve made it explicit – on Saturday afternoon (1 to 5 p.m.), the Friends of Stinger Square are holding a Celebrating Our Mothers Event with games, food, gifts, and giveaways. Irene Russell, who grew up on the 1300 block of South 32nd Street, and resides on the 1500 block of South Napa Street, is more than just the mother to grown children George, 43, and Sheryl, 39 – she says “I’m the mother of Stinger Square. I have herds of children.” On celebrating mothers, she rightfully points out, “without us, the world would just fall apart.”

Russell isn’t kidding, either, and she takes the park’s role in her community to heart.

“I grew up right across the street from Stinger, my whole family is Stinger Square,” she said. “It’s where a community gathers. It is THE place once the weather breaks. When you talk to people about Stinger, they don’t say ‘the’ park, they say ‘my’ park – they feel ownership – it’s our park and everyone loves it because it’s such an awesome place.”

The admirers recently benefited from a slew of improvements: “We have a new rain garden, new picnic tables, new plantings, new garbage receptacles – I’m just so excited about all of it. I know this is going to be a phenomenal season,” Russell said enthusiastically.

At the park on Tuesday, four of her eight grandchildren playfully ran around the small pavilion (she’s got five great-grandchildren, too) closer to Reed Street, and the pastor from Williams Temple CME Church, 3133 Reed St., came over to chat.

“We pray a lot,” Russell said. “Stinger Square has the reputation of zero violence, and I’m so proud of that.”

Nicole Hennessey, another mom leading a park’s charge, lives on the 1100 block of South Third Street, and Jefferson Square is both her front yard and her three daughters’ play space. Stretching from Third to Fourth streets, Washington Avenue to Federal Street, the park faces Sacks Playground. The Friends of Jefferson Square Park group lost its 501(c)(3) status while Hennessey had her third child, Kiera, but now that she’s a solid six months old, the matriarch is back at it with galvanizing neighborhood participation (including reacquiring nonprofit status).

“The park was pretty dumpy 10 years ago. When we look back, we often think ‘What were we doing?’” she joked – their small Pennsport home has been a passion project, gutting every room, expanding to fit their family, and finishing the basement for a play room. “But the park has changed quite a bit in those 10 years. [Michael Toklish] really worked hard in those years when we first moved in to secure grants and upgrade the park and to work with the neighborhood to turn it around.”

She said their Love Your Park event will fall on May 14, their usual second Saturday cleanup, but, in the near future, they hope to go beyond mere cleanups.

“We’re ready to mobilize in terms of doing fundraisers and writing grants,” Hennessey said, “and really trying to get some income to do some big changes.”

Near the northwest corner of the Whitman neighborhood, Mifflin Square Park stretches from Sixth to Fifth streets and between Wolf and Ritner streets. On Tuesday, Rebecca Wanner, who lives on the 700 block of Wolf Street, was checking out a book giveaway with her four-year-old son, Joaquin.

“Oh yeah, he would spend every day here” if he could, she said, adding “to not have it be a trek, just a quick little walk and I don’t have to worry about getting him in a stroller,” it’s a huge relief to have a park one block away.

The 2015 South Philly Review Difference Maker is a very involved mom with Friends of Mifflin Square, which focuses most of its programming on youths with regular Kids Nights and Movie Nights. But on May 7, they will team up with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia for a Bicycle Rodeo (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.): “They’re going to do some kind of bike tricks and show off a little, then they’ll set up a little obstacle course. It should be a lot of fun,” Wanner, whose partner, Thoai Nguyen, grew up frequenting the park, said.

She and the other moms often have backup parks if they’re meeting friends. They’ll go to Columbus Square, 1200 Wharton St., Dickinson Square Park, 300 Tasker St., and Marconi Plaza, 2700 S. Broad St. Hennessey said the same thing, citing Shot Tower Playground, 131 Carpenter St., Dickinson Square, and Herron Playground, 250 Reed St., as good destinations for playgrounds, but their park, her girls say, is the “green park.”

Parks without equipment often require “real imagination, you have to go and come up with things to do. We’ll bring stuff out like tee-ball, Frisbee, chalk or bubbles. There are two really great climbing trees,” Hennessey said. “Tons of picnics, it’s a regular throughout the summer. In fact, my daughter [, six-year-old Abigail,] wanted a camping birthday party, so we put up a few tents, filled them with balloons for the kids to play in, and we had a cake with a graham cracker tent, and we hung lanterns from trees.”

Wanner said her park is a great place for Joaquin to play with trees, too, but “chasing squirrels is up there, too, with playing on the playground with other kids, playing tag and hide and seek.” The moms “definitely talk about schools,” too.

Russell, who said she and her brother decided to do “something more” in 2000 after a great deal of prayer, contacted the Parks & Recreation Department and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. She’s proud they’ve been able to turn it into what the sign says on the northeast corner, “an urban oasis, and that’s what it really is.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert

Irene Russell, the matriarch of Stinger Square, poses with her granddaughters beside the sign she believes is quite fitting.

Rebecca Wanner, with son Joaquin at Tuesday’s book exchange, stands beside newly-planted flowers at Whitman’s Mifflin Square Park.

Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert