A Love Letter To Carousel House

Group photo of Katie’s Komets
Katie’s Komets Photo: Michele Ray.

When I think about Philadelphia, I associate this city with certain things. They’re things I was taught about, things that are celebrated and used in logos and on souvenirs. I could name at least five places that are known for their cheesesteaks, but I never knew that Philadelphia is home to Carousel House, the first city-funded disability rec center in the country. Construction was completed in 1987, and now, at the tender age of 35 years old, it is being demolished.

All of this time, we had the first city-funded disability rec center in the country, and many are only hearing about it now as it’s set to be demolished. It feels like something that should’ve been celebrated city-wide, something that should’ve been the blueprint for all other facilities in the city. We often don’t hear or know about places unless they directly affect us or someone around us. Why are places as important as this not on everyone’s radar?

Xavier Ray and Caroline Cooke on a indoor basketball court.
Xavier Ray and Caroline Cooke
Photo: Michele Ray.

I initially heard about Carousel House on a podcast episode of BEN Around Philly, hosted by Kristen Hermann, a radio DJ for BenFM. Her cousin, Xavier Ray, 15, has an L1 complete spinal cord injury and has played for Katie’s Komets for seven years. Katie’s Komets is a co-ed wheelchair basketball team for kids with physical disabilities in elementary school through high school (katieskomets.org). After closing Carousel House for two years during the pandemic, Parks and Rec decided it would be better to demolish and rebuild, a process that is often very time consuming.

Katie’s Komets no longer has a place to practice or host the 24th annual Katie Kirlin Junior Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, which has always been at Carousel House. “It’s horrible, you know. As a supervisor, I had the second-longest tenure. It’s known all over the country, especially for wheelchair sports,” said Stu Greenberg, who was the director there for 11 years and started the Junior Wheelchair Basketball league. “The Parks and Rec department was great in finding us a suitable place to hold the tournament,” said Roseann Kirlin, who started the Katie Kirlin Fund with her husband Joe, in memory of their daughter Katie and her achievements in wheelchair athletics. “They secured the High School of the Future and the staff that always worked the tournaments.”

To hear how amazing Carousel House was, all you have to do is speak to anyone who was involved. “Almost every night they had a different activity — line dancing, arts and crafts, sports, you name it. The Carousel House was a place where everyone was able to live their authentic lives, where everyone was safe, supported and celebrated, and that is invaluable,” said Joe. As long as it was open, Joe and Roseann were involved. Over the years, they have provided grants to athletes to purchase wheelchairs specially designed for racing and basketball, sponsored various wheelchair sporting events and provide lodging and travel expenses for Katie’s Komets.

The Parks and Rec Department said the building needed a new roof, HVAC system and dehumidification system, plus other repairs to the steel structure and the pool. “They say there was a meeting, but none of the people who were around for so long were invited,” said Joe. “It’s sad, none of us were asked to attend the meeting,” said Stu. “They made the decision without any input from anyone in that community,” said Joe.

It feels like classic ableism. If you don’t know what that word means, allow Access Living to explain: “Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.” Ableism is inherent in most of society. It’s rare to find a place that is so perfectly the opposite of that, and it really does seem like Carousel House was that place.

“I know every building in the district. As it stands, Carousel House is in the top 25 percent,” said Stu, who made multiple repair requests over the years. “They weren’t met because they needed capital interest.” Joe and Roseann offered to raise the money. “When we heard they were planning on demolishing, they said they needed $1 million to make the repairs without knocking it down. We offered to raise that money, but they said it was impossible,” says Roseann Kirlin. It doesn’t seem impossible at all in a day and age where a guy making potato salad raised close to $60,000 on GoFundMe. “Parents felt safe dropping their kids off for two hours at Carousel House. That’s invaluable. Parks and Rec were so proud of it and said it took them 35 years to get it right. Now they’re knocking it down,” said Joe Kirlin.

Parks and Rec promised to relocate all of the programming in the interim, which they list on their website. “Parks and Rec have been helpful with finding new locations, but it was harder to find a spot for wheelchair basketball,” said Michele Ray, mother of Xavier. “They showed us some accessible places, but you have to think about parking. Carousel House had plenty of parking. You have to think about accessibility and getting the wheelchairs out. You need that space between.” Joe and Roseann chimed in that some of the spaces Parks and Rec found had rubber floors, which are unusable for wheelchair basketball, or pillars that would prevent the kids from moving freely. “Parks and Rec found us Pelbano Rec Center at 8101 Bustleton Ave., but they needed to put in a wooden floor,” says Beth Cooke, whose daughter Caroline, 14, has spina bifida and has played for Katie’s Komets for 5 years. They had their first practice at the Pelbano Rec Center on March 22nd.

There will always be oversights or things we’re simply not aware of unless they affect us or someone we know. Details like the ones mentioned above seem like they should’ve been factored into the decision of demolishing Carousel House. “The kids of Katie’s Komets need storage because they can’t drag two chairs to practice every week. Carousel House had a shed for storage, but not many other places do,” said Roseann. “In the wheelchair basketball community, people do travel far. We’ll meet people who live in Montana and they’ll have to drive 6 hours to practice, where I can’t complain driving three and a half,” said Beth, who drove Caroline up to New York to go to practices during the pandemic.

This dedication is what parents do when their kids love something. “What Katie’s Komets has given us … the only thing available to us in South Jersey were Challenger Sports,” said Michele. Challenger Athletics’ mission is to establish sports programs for people with both physical and learning disabilities. “The kids ended up growing and they kept playing Xavier with the little kids so he didn’t get hurt. We started looking and found the Komets and we were welcome right away. Through that, he started making friends with similar disabilities.” By the time the new building is complete, many of the current players of Katie’s Komets will be in college.

Because of Carousel House, individuals were able to find their passion and community. They flourished and accomplished great things. “Twenty kids went on to college basketball and we had one Paralympian racer, Amanda McGrory, who won multiple gold medals,” said Joe Kirlin. “Xavier is a sophomore, Caroline is a freshman, and they’re starting to look for colleges. They want to play wheelchair basketball in college, lots of kids on the team do,” said Beth. “Charlotte, NC is the most accessible city in the U.S. Those are things we’re looking for. All of our kids go to school, and they are the only wheelchair users in the school or one of two,” said Michele. “Xavier is looking to go to school with a wheelchair community.”

When Carousel House was created it was state-of-the-art, but through the years there are certain aspects that have become dated. “It wasn’t nice,” said Beth. “We were the Bad News Bears of Basketball because we’d go down and we’ll play in Baltimore or we’ll play in VA and some of their facilities are really nice,” Michele chimed in. “But I have to say we love Carousel House because it was ours.” Through Carousel House, Caroline was able to play basketball with female Paralympians. “That was a really special moment, to see my daughter playing with all women,” said Beth. Sports can be a male-dominated area, so creating these opportunities is amazing and important.

Community is not something that’s built into schools, workplaces or extracurricular activities for everyone. “Sure, this building is going to be wonderful, but it’s been almost a year. It’s still in the design phase and not final,” said Roseann. “The Zoom meeting last week showed us options, and all disabilities were represented to give their input.” An inevitable part of life is change, and hopefully, through that change, progress. Some of us can easily find options if one is eliminated, but it’s not true for everyone. When a decision affects the only option that exists for so many, they should absolutely be included in that decision.

We must all strive for an inclusive and accessible society across the board, and make ourselves aware of the needs of others before deciding what is best for them. The entire city should be paying attention to the progress of Carousel House and the City of Philadelphia Parks and Rec system-wide inclusion plan.

Learn more:

Katie’s Komets is always looking for new players! If you or someone you know has a physical disability and is in elementary through high school, you can reach out to info@katieskomets.org.

You can donate to Katie’s Komets through the NWBA Return To Play campaign here. Donations go towards tires and tubes ($75), cushions ($400), wheels ($700), registration ($1,000), wheelchairs ($4,000) and trips to Nationals ($10,000).

If you have questions or want to take part in the community engagement process for the new Carousel House facility,  email rebuild@phila.gov.

If you have questions about new accessible locations to host programs and permitted activities, email parksandrecreation@phila.gov.


    • Aubrie Williams is a writer/comedian who has been performing sketch and improv comedy in Philly and comedy festivals across the U.S. for over a decade. She was a member of King Friday (improv), ManiPedi (sketch), and Goat Rodeo (sketch). Currently, she is one-half of King Friday Productions, a production team she co-created with her best […]

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