Philly has the only city-funded disability recreation center in the country

When Josh Lovell started playing wheelchair basketball at the Carousel House, it was the first time he felt like people weren’t staring at his chair.

Lovell, now 27, joined the team in his early 20s. Before he found the Carousel House, he played on a basketball team for children with special needs in West Chester — but he was always the only player in a wheelchair.

“He went from being the only kid in a wheelchair, to having every kid playing in a wheelchair,” said his father, Mike Lovell. “It felt like coming home.”

The Philadelphia Magee Spokesmen Wheelchair Basketball Team — also known as the Philadelphia 76ers Disabled Basketball Team — practices every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Carousel House, a city-funded recreation center for people with disabilities located in Fairmount Park.

It’s the only recreation center of its kind in the entire country, said Erica Young-Carter, who started as the director of the Carousel House in 2008.

Josh Lovell isn’t the only person who found a home at the Carousel House. The recreation center is open 12 hours every day — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — for Philadelphia’s population with disabilities, and it provides a variety of programming to suit their needs.

“We do a little bit of everything,” Young-Carter said.

This year, the center offered activities spanning from wheelchair basketball to ceramics classes to support groups for young adults with intellectual disabilities. The House hosts movie nights every Thursday and day camps for children over the summer.

Every October, Young-Carter hosts the Carousel House Ball. She’s already settled on this year’s theme: the Roaring ’20s. The Carousel House dances usually bring in around 400 guests, Young-Carter said.

“I have a great staff here,” Young-Carter said. “We all work together, trying to make sure the disabled population has good programming.

The Carousel House first opened to the public in the early 1970s, originally at the site of an old amusement park at Belmont and Parkside avenues. When the amusement park closed down, the city replaced it with the recreation center — in the building that formerly housed the carousel.

“Hence the name the Carousel House,” Young-Carter said.

That building burned down in 1980, Young-Carter said, which is when the city started to build the current facility on the corner of Avenue of the Republic and Belmont Avenue. It was June 1987 when the new Carousel House opened to accommodate Philadelphia’s population with disabilities.

Ever since it first opened, the Carousel House has looked a little different than other Philadelphia recreation centers.

In Philadelphia’s 2017 Operating Budget, the Carousel House is afforded $349,391 for all its expenses, including program administration and staff salaries. Young-Carter said this is about the same budget afforded to all Parks and Recreation facilities in Philadelphia, but it’s not quite enough to cover the Carousel House’s expenses.

“The rest is out of our pockets,” Young-Carter said.

To make up for it, Young-Carter organizes fundraisers. The annual Carousel House Ball costs $5 per person, and most of the Carousel House’s weekly classes cost $150 for the whole nine-month season.

All the money goes right back into our programming,” Young-Carter said. “We try to keep our programs as low…as far as cost goes, as we can, because a lot of our folks are on a fixed income.”

The Carousel House also provides meals and handicapped-accessible buses and vans for some of its programs.

“Transportation is a very big part of what we do,” Young-Carter said. “During the summertime it’s a necessity, because we have folks coming from all over the city, not just the West Philadelphia area. We use buses and vans to actually pick up our campers and bring them here, and then we take them back. Without the transportation component, we wouldn’t have a camp.”

Young-Carter has worked in different departments at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation for nearly 22 years. It was nine years ago when she started at the Carousel House.

“I think our biggest challenge is just, our facilities are getting older,” Young-Carter said. “A lot of facilities are getting older, so we’re hoping the soda tax will come through and help get some renovations done to our facilities.”

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mayor Jim Kenney expects to collect $400 million through his new soda tax, which tacks on additional 1.5 cents per ounce to the cost of sugary beverages. He plans to devote $56 million to rebuilding Parks and Recreation centers across the city.

Young-Carter hopes the Carousel House is among the chosen ones.

But until then, she’s just focusing on the day-to-day responsibilities of keeping the Carousel House alive.

At the end of February, the Special Populations Basketball league season officially wrapped up for the year. Young-Carter organized an end-of-the-season banquet, and she gave out participation awards to all 50 players.

“Once we were done, they were like, ‘OK, when do we start back up again?’” Young-Carter said. “They’re already looking ahead. We haven’t even gotten to summer yet, and they’re like, ‘OK, we’re starting up again in October.’”

“So I’m like, we must be doing something right,” she added. “They look forward to the programming. They enjoy it. That’s pretty positive feedback, I’d say.”

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