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Kensington kids are loving the new summer programming in McPherson Square

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Billy Penn, a nonprofit newsroom at WHYY.

Each day this summer, the park and library at McPherson Square in Kensington transforms into a safe space for kids, complete with cooking classes hosted by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation and a new outpost of the city’s Playstreets program.

Though the public park has always had some level of summer youth programming, this is the first year it has been transformed with new signage and play equipment, designed by local nonprofit TinyWPA.

Neighborhood parents seem to like the program, which sections off the playground to create a space for children to play freely and safely — something often lacking in the area around McPherson Square.

“Many of these blocks have drug problems, so it’s not safe for Playstreets to be held on those blocks,” said neighborhood parent Theresa Malone.

Malone’s daughter Anastasia, a rising fourth grader, said she feels safer because of the new programming.

“Especially now that the fence is around the playground,” Anastasia said. “It keeps people out — they should put one around the whole park and give us the keys!”

The neighborhood is considered a gun violence “hotspot,” which means it consistently contributes disproportionately to Philadelphia’s shooting statistics. Twenty-five of the blocks that saw 10 or more shootings during 2021 are in Kensington, and the area has some of the lowest median household incomes in the city. The summer programming for kids is a bright spot.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is operating its pop up PlayPark program in three Kensington locations this year, said department spokesperson Maita Soukup: McPherson Square, Hissey Playground, and Harrowgate Park. They’re possible because of a partnership with the Free Library, the PPD, the Managing Director’s Office, and the city’s Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), she said.

In addition to the snacks offered by the Playstreets initiative, McPherson Square Library also offers daily free lunches for kids.

It’s run by a woman the kids affectionately call “Miss Maria the Lunch Lady.” She hands out food and even sends home extra meals for hungry siblings. Over 16% of School District of Philadelphia households experienced food insecurity during the 2020 to 2021 school year.

“I’m just trying to do my part,” said Bryan Belknap, the after-school program coordinator at McPherson Library. He’s worked there since 2015 and has a hand in creating its annual summer programming. Belknap says the Playstreets program averages around 40 youth attendees a day, and that participation in the after-school program ebbs and flows with the academic year on top of library closures.

“If the library was ever to shut down, a lot of our young men would die or get wrapped up in something bad,” said Malone.

Scroll for a look at kids and adults enjoying McPherson’s summer offerings.

Bryan Belknap, McPherson Square Library after-school program coordinator, pushing Jolissa on the swing. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
A youngster playing on the ropes during Playstreets. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
Jozephina going down the slide with her brother Josiah. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
Getting snacks from Miss Maria the Lunch Lady. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
Staff from the New Kensington Community Development Corporation prepare to lead cooking class. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
A young chef prepares for cooking class in the teen section of the library. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
Library after-school coordinator Bryan Belknap making slime with the kids. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR KENSINGTON VOICE)
Playing in the McPherson Square playground during “The Block Gives Back” event. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
Adults taking advantage of the playground equipment during “The Block Gives Back” event. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)
The McPherson Square playground fence with (right to left) Theresa Moreno, Riley, Ezekiel, Jozephina, Josiah, Corey, Mason, Latiff Amar, Jamil, Emory, Antonio, Amaya, and Anastasia. (DAISIE CARDONA FOR BILLY PENN)

Editors: Billy Penn / Designer: Billy Penn

Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.