by Alexa Zizzi
About ten years ago, the city attempted to close down the Helen G. Sturgis playground and rec center in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philly—but Jeff Hackett wouldn’t let that happen. Not without a fight.
As a West Oak Lane native, Hackett has dedicated the majority of his life to local community work. He has been a long-time volunteer in the Oak Lane area while raising his children and grandchildren locally. In the mid-2000s, the Helen G. Sturgis Playground and Rec Center, located at 200 65th Avenue, was slated for closure by the city. Under Hackett’s leadership, they worked closely with city council to develop a plan to rebuild the playground and rec center to meet the community’s needs and save the park.
He then stepped up as the Helen G. Sturgis Advisory Council President over five years ago, where he continues future plans to add facilities and amenities that meet educational needs of local children.
Now with two huge, side-by-side playgrounds, beautiful landscaping, sports fields, basketball courts, a huge water sprinkler perfect for hot summer days, inside facilities including a kitchen, multipurpose rooms, computer labs and more, Sturgis has become more of its own mini community rather than just local rec center.
Hackett oversees the community somewhat like the town’s own wise, homegrown, unsung hero of the neighborhood who has seen a lot in his lifetime. He mentors children by keeping them in line through discipline, yet always encourages positivity by pushing them to be the best they can be.
He is also a chair member of the 35th District Police Advisory Council and was in the National Guard for 14 years while his wife worked as a cop for 22 years. His heart has always been centered on bettering the community as a whole.
As a parent, grandfather, educator and mentor, he is the type of man who speaks to every parent on the playground and calls them by name. In addition to his work for the Sturgis community, he is on the executive board of the Melrose Park Gardens Civic Association in which he is currently helping turn into a Registered Community Organization (RCO) through the city’s planning commission. He has also been an active member of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission since it was constituted in July, 2009.
Hackett said he never dreamed his life path would lead to working with children, but it just seemed to naturally end up that way. A realization struck about 30 years ago when he noticed kids playing with an old mattress at Morris Estate Playground right down the street from Sturgis. He thought to himself, “Somebody should do something with these kids.”
He recalled, “Something somebody told me years ago was that if you don’t see a leader, then maybe it’s your turn.”
“So I went out there and I started a baseball team and nobody even knew how to hold a bat or use a glove,” he said. “But you know what—everybody got a hit before the season was over.”
He said during his time as an educator, junior athletic coach for rec teams and mentor for local youth, he was especially drawn to helping the most troubled kids dealing with what he referred to as “hormone disorder”—the ones “really going through it” at that tough adolescent age.
“I’ve always been outdoorsy, but what got me involved with kids was circumstance—it was not planned,” Hackett said.
“When you get involved and begin to see that first change of behavior, knowing there’s so much more of that transition and you see in their eyes that hope comes back – it’s kind of like a drug,” he said. “That first kid that you see hopeful again, that you know was coming from a rough start.”
Executive Director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, George Matysik said Sturgis is really a model the Parks Alliance uses for a lot of recreation advisory councils.
“They’ve brought so much local experience and local resources to their recreation center and capitalized not only on their own ability to create resources, but also working through the political and fundraising process in order to get their rec center all the resources it needs,” Matysik said.
Hackett recently worked closely with the Philadelphia Parks Alliance and other local rec centers, community organizations and neighbors during their advocacy for Mayor Kenney’s soda tax proposal, a budget dedicated to funding parks, rec centers, libraries and universal pre-k.
Matysik said through all of their advocacy and campaigning for the soda tax, holding various rallies and events and dedicating endless hours to communicating with council, Hackett was always reliable for help and support.
“Anytime we asked him to show up to anything, he was always there,” Matysik said.
Hackett said he was actually torn between whether he wanted to support the soda tax or not.
“Being a Kool-Aid kid growing up and having some health issues earlier this year—I actually cut sugar out of my life and lost 38 lbs.,” he said.
“I didn’t know that I was going to be advocating with George and them about the soda tax and I didn’t know I would be taking myself off of sugar and seeing all the damage it did to me,” he said. “But because I know both sides of the fence, I leaned towards what was practical, and I’ve always believed what is practical is usually spiritual, and what is spiritual usually helps all.”
Hackett said Sturgis playground has grown into a truly unique and diverse place with many different ethnic groups that come from communities throughout Oak Lane and beyond.
“People come here because of the environment we have—for one, it’s a beautiful place; the atmosphere is beautiful, but the spirit is even more beautiful,” he said.
Sturgis Playground and Rec Center holds group activities throughout the year for children including afterschool and mentoring programs. This season they are holding sports and activities including tennis, basketball, flag football, line dancing, competitive cheerleading and more.
Sturgis’ main purpose is to serve the community’s children. Hackett said they have a no-tolerance policy for bad behavior, foul language and they only allow youth activities for ages 16 and under to focus solely on the younger kids.
“We want our children to be the baseline—everything starts with them and then grows out.”