The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 19, 2013

Have fun, on purpose

— In April last year, I may have been hanging around your playground with a camera, but it was not what you (who live in troubled times) might suspect. My wife and I were on the photographic world tour of local playgrounds.

The world tour included Selinsgrove, Middleburg, Mifflinburg, Lewisburg, Sunbury, Shamokin Dam and New Berlin. I know. We missed some good ones.

I was trying to ignite interest in summer playground journalism and thought a photo-pack puzzle called “can you identify this playground?” for the in-house newsletter would be a fun way to spark interest among the newsies.

Yes, this is how out of touch a person can become.

In an attempt to reconnect in the past few weeks, we attended two rallies for youth – in Milton and Middleburg -- and then I made several phone calls asking about summer programs here in the Valley.

We had just come off a public discussion by the Snyder County Coalition for Kids, where a latticework of committees and surveys had gauged “risk factors” and “protective factors” that characterized the community.

Speakers identified “parental attitudes favorable to anti-social behavior” and “laws and norms favorable to drug use” as risk factors and registered the “scarcity of community opportunities for pro-social involvement”.

The keynote address from an adult probation officer, whose work includes daily casework with 1,000-1,100 adults and juveniles in narcotics and gangs, reinforced the message with statistical shock and awe about dystopia in Snyder County.

In a rare phenomenon, language usually coded for grant application writers was seeping into a public setting. Twice members of the audience – a gentleman from the welfare office and a lady from Children and Family Services -- raised their hands to interject and dull the edges of the speaker’s revelations.

No one has ever successfully applied for state or federal funding by explaining how little need there is for the money. In the world of government grant approval, everything starts out like North Korea.

As the speaker launched into an anecdote about visiting a dwelling in disarray, taking a needle out of the arm of an adult probationer while, nearby, a child tried to eat cereal with soured milk, they called finally time on the talk.

Work toward a caring community for kids, should wisely start with an inventory of what is good, what needs to change and how to do it. For most of us, reality exists between a brochure from the Visitor’s Bureau and the anguish of a child rescue petition in family court. In that space, much can be achieved by a young man, a young woman, a whistle and a playground.

Ask Ron Pratt, teacher and coach, who is Sunbury’s director or pool and playground operations.

Every summer, Pratt marshals 15-17 youthful counselors into a staff for the city’s playgrounds and pool to serve 300-500 children with games and activities 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, or  9-to-9 at the Oppenheimer Pleasure Park, a “sprayground” on Second Street. Weekend hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

He hires college students or college-bound high schoolers (18 year-olds) who pay for their education with two kinds of state education loans. If they major in a subject involving children, the state reimburses their $3,600 summer pay to the tune of about 40 percent.

Pratt’s Sunbury operation is a more extensive, experienced, better equipped and financed ($40K a year) than many. It includes a side benefit federal free lunch program through the Milton YMCA that turns no one away. The program is justifiably a source of pride for Sunbury and reflects well on the city.

The thing is, Pratt is willing to share tradecraft – the “how-to’s” of games, themes and organization – if there are smaller communities in the Valley interested in a playground program with a few counselors. “It is doable on a very small budget,” he assures.

Role models work. Much can be communicated that cannot be duplicated elsewhere between an admirable, responsible college-age counselor and youngsters on a summer playground.

I called around last week to several other boroughs and towns. I discovered opportunities for pro-social involvement in Snyder County. Want to see if this works for you?  Ron Pratt invited contact at

Thanks, Ron.  All the best, everybody.