By Claire Sasko
(written April, 2016)
Walk through the front doors of the Hank Gathers Recreation Center on almost any given day, and you’ll hear deep belly laughs, lively chatter and the squeaking of sneakers on a basketball court.
It’s a bustling building with hot-dog and pretzel stands, a friendly black-and-white cat and walls covered in posters of famous athletes–many of whom have walked through the doors of Hank Gathers countless times themselves.
There’s a lot going on at 2501 Diamond St., and not just in the sunny, open gym, where basketball players like Dawn Staley, Kyle Lowry, Mike Anderson, Marvin Harrison, Bo Kimble, and (as the rec center’s name implies) Hank Gathers, have dribbled.
Take a few steps further, and you’ll find yourself in the “living room” of Hank Gathers, staring at 64-year-old Cheryl Hardy and her bright orange hair.
Hardy, also known as “Aunt Cheryl,” is the woman who sits quietly at the center of Hank Gathers, a recreation center that has long served as the heartbeat of its surrounding North Philadelphia community.
She has worked at the center for roughly 30 years. First, in pool maintenance, then with the organization’s summer camps, and now as the president of the advisory council.
“There’s nothing like being at Hank Gathers,” Hardy said. “I’m here seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. I love it here.”
Like many of Hank Gathers’ staff members, Hardy grew up at the recreation center. She’s helped to implement and oversee the organization’s 14 activity programs, including afterschool programs, dance initiatives, educational nutrition programs and the “urban blazers” outdoors program.
“It’s a busy place,” said Enjoli Storm, a dance instructor at Hank Gathers. “It’s really hectic, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Hardy has brainstormed and carried out dozens of events herself, like carnivals, birthday parties “for kids who have never had birthday parties,” and all kinds of holiday celebrations–haunted houses near Halloween and the recreation center’s popular Christmas toy giveaway.
This past year, Hardy held “Grammy night,” an evening for kids to dress in their finest attire and pose for photos alone or with dates.
“Anything I see that [the kids] have never done, we try to do,” Hardy said. “They say, ‘Aunt Cheryl, we ain’t got nothing to do,’ and I say, ‘Stick around a while, let’s think of something.”
“We want to make our kids feel needed,” Hardy added. “This is a safe haven.”
Many who visit the recreation center call Hardy their “aunt” or “grandma,” and Hardy considers everyone at Hank Gathers “family.”
“You can’t walk anywhere and think of Hank Gathers without thinking of Cheryl,” said Charles Corley, a basketball coach at Hank Gathers. “She did a lot for not only me and my generation, but for the generation before that and even this generation. That’s the respect she’s given, because she’s so deeply rooted into this neighborhood.”
Corley, 27, has known Hardy since he was in second grade, when he first started visiting Hank Gathers. Now, he returns as a coach to give back to the rec center.
As the first person in his family to attend college, he credits much of his success to Hardy and other staff members at Hank Gathers.
“For some of these kids, this is their getaway from whatever might be bothering them at school or bothering them at home,” Corley said. “If I had a dance program, and I was a young lady, and I had somebody to talk to about being a young lady, and I don’t have that at home, I can rely on that here.”
“To let kids know you’re here for them–that’s a great thing,” he added.