In 2016, Rebecca Fabiano, the president of Fab Youth Philly, jumpstarted an idea that would take Philadelphia’s Playstreets one step further: she created “Play Captains,” a program that would employ teenagers to incorporate playful learning for children during the summer.
“Part of this idea came from living in Philadelphia for many years,” Fabiano said. “In the summer, I [would be] driving through the neighborhoods. I wouldn’t be able to get down a particular street because it was closed off, but there was nothing happening.”
After doing some research, Fabiano learned that these closed-off streets were called “Playstreets,” which have been facilitated by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation for over 50 years. In the summer months, they’re designated safe places for children to play and eat a free meal. Fabiano, who has a background in youth development, decided that she wanted to put teenagers on the Playstreets as mentors to bring life to the program.
“The ‘Play Captain’ title is supposed to be a reflection of the block captain role that exists in Philadelphia,” Fabiano said. “We’re using Philly-centric language so that it’s familiar to folks.”
To start Play Captains, Fabiano began frequenting the Playstreets, leading activities, and working with the adult supervisors there. In 2017, the program’s first partnerships emerged — Impact Services in Kensington, a non-profit focused on bettering the community, and West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhoods, a program that works with young children in West Philadelphia.
“It felt like, to me, an opportunity to take several systems that were functioning independently and get them to function in a more coordinated way,” Fabiano said.
At first, the Play Captains program began with just one adult supervisor in Kensington, but quickly expanded to a team of five teenagers ranging in age from 15 to 19 in Kensington, and five in West Philadelphia the following year. Each teenager gets their own street.
“The idea is that Play Captains would bring summer camp to the street,” said Play Captains group leader Emilia Autin-Hefner. “We want to bring the games and activities to the children and residents.”
The Play Captains are under the supervision of adults like Autin-Hefner. Leaders like Autin-Hefner help facilitate planning activities, gathering materials, and traveling around the Playstreets to supervise.
“I [work] with the residents on the street trying to get to know them,” Autin-Hefner said. “I’m talking to parents if they’re out [and] street supervisors. I’m really trying to get a sense of the neighborhood and if they have ideas or suggestions for the Play Captains.”
Nineteen-year-old Joshua Quinones of Kensington began working as a Play Captain in 2017.
“I’ve always liked to help people,” said Quinones, who recently aged out of the program. “I thought that I was a good fit since I’m already used to the [Kensington] area.”
Quinones said that as a Play Captain, he would do physical activities as well as educational activities that would incorporate math and literacy, and play water games to keep the children cool in the summer heat. According to Quinones, he loves working with children and values the relationships he made working in that role.
“When I first started, I was just getting acquainted with the kids,” Quinones said. “When I came back the second year, the kids were like, ‘Hey, Josh is back.'”
Quinones now works as a seasonal library assistant at McPherson Square Library and uses the skills he learned from being a Play Captain to help him work with the children there.
Each Play Captain goes through a five-day training session before beginning to work on the Playstreets, which teaches them the concept of playful learning as well as basic safety and first aid training. They are also taught what to do in the case of an emergency, such as finding an adult or knowing to who to call.
“We have really honest conversations [with our teens] about the fact that they’re going to walk by people who are actively using and selling drugs [in Kensington],” Fabiano said. “We talk about what to do if you see someone unconscious, or overdosing.”
Fabiano says that the Play Captains and adult group leaders have protocols in the case of an emergency and that they work closely with the local police districts and community relations officers. They have also developed safe havens for the Play Captains to go to in the event of an emergency, such as a nearby corner store.
“The store owner knows that the teenager in the red shirt that says ‘Play Captain’ is part of our program,” Fabiano said.
This summer, the Play Captains will be out on the street through August 16th. According to Autin-Hefner, the bonds between the children and Play Captains are the most gratifying aspect of the program for everyone involved.
“The kids are calling for them when they’re not on the street,” Autin-Hefner said. “If [the Play Captains] aren’t there, the kids are asking where they are. The relationships they are able to build in such a short period of time is the most rewarding part.”
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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte