It started with a dream of a dog park.
Tony Benson, a resident of Holme Circle for seven years, volunteers his time with individuals with autism, and they would make frequent trips to Frank McArdle Park. He quickly became aware of litter, shattered glass and “ancient” playground equipment plaguing the park, a site he believed deserved to be beautiful and accessible.
In 2019, two neighborhood dogs ended up running on his lawn in two separate incidents in the span of a week. Seeing there was no safe space for residents to walk their dogs, he started a petition to make the park more dog friendly. The petition attracted more than 1,000 signatures, but unfortunately didn’t move the meter enough to get any real change done at the time.
But it did something better.
Revitalizing the park has been a goal of the Holme Circle Civic Association for nearly a decade now. When the association’s board, including president Mike Fagan and secretary Elsie Stevens, found out about Benson’s goals, they combined forces to get the project moving. The association raised funds and community support to rally behind revitalizing the park.
City officials held a groundbreaking for the project back in 2019, adding basketball courts and play equipment to the 20,000-square-foot space. The pandemic delayed the project’s completion, which is still underway, but the bottom line is the project got done.
Through working together on this project, Fagan, Stevens and the association created a strong partnership with Benson. So much so, that a couple of months ago, they offered to bring him onboard as treasurer.
“We could see he was a go-getter and he doesn’t take no for an answer, and that’s what we need,” Stevens said.
Benson is the first African American to serve on the board since it was established in 2007. In a neighborhood as diverse as Holme Circle, he said it is important to bring diversity and representation to the table.
“In the Northeast, this is probably the biggest melting pot of race and ethnicities where everybody can come together and get along,” Benson said.
He may be new to the position, but he’s hit the ground running. There are several projects in the works, including bringing the “Swab Squad” to the neighborhood. They are a group of nurses from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital who went viral after their dancing video was featured on Ellen.
The project will have the nurses recording more videos around the neighborhood in a campaign to spread information and awareness about COVID-19 vaccination.
Benson has been in contact with Kenny Holdsman, CEO of Philly Youth Basketball, to bring athletic programs for youth to the area. He also envisions creating programs to highlight the history of Holme Circle and the people who come from the area, like Sylvester Stallone and playwright Charles Fuller.
“We have a statue [of Stallone] downtown, why isn’t anything here?” he said.
Benson has always been a community-oriented person. He weighed over 300 pounds at the point of his life where he started volunteering with people with autism, and one of his clients convinced him to start going to the gym together, and he was able to lose over 100 pounds.
“I realized what my purpose was from then on,” he said.
The minute he started giving more, it changed his life forever. That’s when he decided to get more involved in the community, starting with Frank McArdle Park.
As for adding a dog-friendly section to McArdle, that’s still a project to be completed on the horizon. But like many other projects, Benson is looking forward to it. ••