By Rosalie Tirella
When the Friendly House, Worcester’s premier social service agency, opened its doors in 1920, its beginnings were as humble as those of the Italian and Syrian immigrants who also made the Grafton Hill neighborhood their home. Located at 38 Wall Street, the place looked like a very large home. But, oh, what an abode! Inside: the first community-based dental clinic in the country, First Aid classes for the neighborhood moms, cooking classes for the girls, and “SNAPs” tables for the boys. Every spring in the ’40s, a Friendly House Doll Carriage Parade wended its way through the neighborhood, with little girls’ doll carriages festooned with flowers and little boys’ bikes decorated to the hilt. The “works of art” would be judged and first-place prizes awarded.
“In the beginning,” says Friendly House executive director Gordon Hargrove, “there was a lot of arts and crafts, music, drama. The Friendly House really didn’t have sports – the more athletic activities. In the ’20s and 30’s, the adults in the neighborhoods had their own baseball teams. The Groton AA.” Hargrove laughs. He is delighted to have the chance to take out the photo boxes and show a visitor all the vintage photos and share the history of a Worcester landmark, a landmark that he has been a part of since the 1950s and headed since the 1970s. To know the Friendly House is to know Gordon Hargrove.
Hargrove explains that only in the 1950s did Friendly House begin a recreation program in earnest – one that has been attended by generations of Worcester kids. It was in the ’50s that the Friendly House sports teams really get rolling, too. And so the Friendly House, which began as a place to eat well, stay healthy and do your homework, became a place where kids of all ages could play baseball, street hockey, football, soccer, basketball. It became a clubhouse where you could join a sports team and play against other teams in the city. It even hosted annual neighborhood road races (and sometimes a yo-yo tournament).
Friendly House has never forgotten that playing is serious business – especially for an inner-city kid. Kids from families without a lot of money knew they could come to the Friendly House and get free sports jerseys or trunks and play on a Friendly House team – for free. There were local sponsors in town, companies and individuals, who wanted to see city kids have fun and stay out of trouble. It was the chance to develop what we used to call (and now sorely need/miss in present-day society) – “character.” Also, other old fashioned qualities were honed: good sportsmanship, the ability to follow rules, discipline, love of fair play. Friendships blossomed, too.
Friendly House Director of Child Care Services Sabrina St. Martin says kids in sports/recreation programs grow: “Friendships happen. It’s nice to see the kids cheering each other on. You see the respect they have for each other.” St. Martin recalls how one year the Friendly House team was up against a team that was one player short. Well, Friendly House gave the team one of its players for the afternoon. “When our kids saw their kid get his first hit – for the other team – they cheered,” she says smiling. St. Martins says, “The staff we have – they’re incredible. They attend the games, the functions. They’re there for support. … They volunteer to coach or referee basketball … .”
Hargrove adds: “One of the important thins is new, hands on experiences [for kids]. It’s one thing to see people swimming on video games or TV, but it’s another thing to get into the water and actually swim yourself. If the only interaction kids have is with videos, computers and television … [Let’s] broaden it – to interacting with many children and adults.”
Of course, you can swim at the Friendly House! One of the best ways to get going is attending their summer recreation program, where every day, the kids get on a bus with “camp” counselors and head off to a local state park, where they learn to swim, among other things. They also do arts and crafts, explore nature, play sports and games and even … read! “We do summer reading to go along with the Worcester Public Schools [summer reading list],” St. Martin says.
Friendly House is accepting applications for all their sports teams. To be on their basketball team costs $75 a season – but no one is turned away, if they don’t have their money. With the generous support of local sponsors, scholarships are given out to kids who need them. And to be a part of the Joe DiMagio/Friendly House Baseball Team doesn’t cost a thing! Kids can still sign up.
Hargrove, however, is worried. Costs keep going up, and grants and donations (because of the rocky economy) are tougher to come by, he says. “Our biggest expense is for staff,” Hargrove says. With one counselor needed for every 12 kids, the money evaporates. Then gasoline for the buses that go to the state parks during the summer. “It can’t be like the old days,” Hargrove says, “with 500 [kids] to 1 [adult]. … For $25 we used to get a bus! And they’d be out on a moment’s notice. … Obviously, we could serve a lot more youngsters, given additional funds. Last year, we were able to have three buses [for the summer rec program].”
And the imminent closing of the city pools – especially the iner-city ones, where the Friendly House has its summer feeding program, worries Hargrove, too. Hundreds of inner-city kids get breakfast/or snack and lunch every day during the summer when they visit the city’s parks – like Crompton Park in Green Island. [editor’s note: There will be a Save Our Pools meeting/rally at Friendly House April 14. Be there!] “The pools are the main attraction on hot days,” Hargrove says. “We’re concerned about the effect on our meals program and other programs. It’s a domino effect.”
Still, spring is here and summer approaches like a Friendly House fast ball. Hargrove and his dedicated staff are gearing up for another season of fun. “A lot of kids have grown up with Friendly House sports,” he says. “People start off here as children. Then they play in the adult teams. … and their kids come here.”
Cheers to the Friendly House recreation program! Long may she run … dribble, pass, bat and dunk!