$1.4 million settlement in Valley Club Swim case

(left to right) Gabriel Levin, Marcus Allen, 14, Althea Right (in front of microphones), David and Brian Mildenberg, and Mikel McKinnie, 12, during a press conference announcing camp Creative Steps award of $1.1 million in settlement over a lawsuite in 2009 with The Valley Club in Huntington Valley, which is no longer in existence since the lawsuite began, Friday, August 17, 2012, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

The U.S. Justice Department announced that it has reached a settlement agreement with the Valley Club, a Huntingdon Valley swim club whose members allegedly discriminated against minority children from an Oxford Circle day camp in June 2009.

Proceeds from the $1.4 million May 2010 sale of the Tomlinson Road club, less court costs and fees, will be paid to more than 50 children from the Creative Steps day camp, their counselors and the camp, the Justice Department announced on Aug. 16.

More than 70 plaintiffs — campers, counselors and Creative Steps — will share in $1.1 million, said attorney Gabriel Levin, who represented the plaintiffs along with David and Brian Mildenberg.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Creative Steps director Alethea Wright said during a Friday evening news conference outside the day camp’s new location on the 8000 block of Frankford Ave. “We can get past racism.”

There is a lesson in what happened, she said. “Get to know someone before you judge them.”

The agreement still needs to be approved by a Bankruptcy Court judge before it can become final.

The saga began in mid-2009 when the New Frankford Community Y closed. The Creative Steps’ day camp kids swam there three times a week. Another area pool was able to provide swimming to the children twice a week. To get that third day in, arrangements were made with the Valley Club, which is just over the county line from the Philmont Heights section of Somerton.

At the time, the Valley Club’s board was looking to bring kids into the more than half-century-old private club because it was trying to increase family memberships. The idea was that kids who visited the club during the summer would enjoy themselves, tell their parents about it and their parents would want to join.

Creative Steps’ director, Alethea Wright, paid almost $2,000 for her campers’ weekly visits to the Valley Club. On June 29, 2009, Wright and more than 50 black and Latino children arrived at the club, were greeted by the president of the club’s board of directors, John Duesler, and then went swimming. That is when some members allegedly made racial remarks and complained to directors about the children’s presence. The club on July 3 backed out of the deal with Creative Steps and returned the camp’s cash.

The club later reinvited the campers, but only after the racism allegations made local, national and then international news. The offer to Creative Steps to return to the swim club was ignored and there were several protests outside the club. There was a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission investigation and report. Then, there were lawsuits, one filed by the U.S. Justice Department and by the kids’ families.

Faced with the possibility of judgments that would financially cripple the club, its board voted to file for bankruptcy in November 2009. That filing forced the sale of the club’s only asset, its 10-acre property on Tomlinson Road.

ldquo;No one may be denied the right to use a swimming pool because of their race or the color of their skin,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division. ldquo;The Justice Department will continue to protect vigorously the rights of persons of all races to be free from discrimination in public accommodations across the country.”

ldquo;This settlement provides significant opportunity to children who were denied an opportunity based on their skin color,” said JoAnn Edwards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. “Our hope is that this case serves as prevention for years to come and a reminder that discrimination is illegal, and has no place in Pennsylvania.”

The settlement also requires that $65,000 be set aside from the proceeds of the sale of the Valley Club property for the creation of a leadership council that comprises former Valley Club members, Creative Steps counselors, campers and their families. The children and families affected by the Valley Club incident will take leadership roles in planning swimming, educational and recreational opportunities for the community. ull;•