City-sponsored recreation has come a long way from the days of simply handing out balls so kids can shoot hoops. In the course of his career, Philip Harper-Cotton has played a large role in developing and expanding what Berkeley offers to youths and families.
Friday, Sept. 1, Harper-Cotton retires from the Division of Recreation and Youth Services after 49 years, the last 11 as a recreation program supervisor.
Harper-Cotton grew up in Berkeley and spent part of almost every day at Grove Park playing ball. His relationship with recreation directors there drew him into youth teams and his lifelong involvement with recreation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in recreation at Cal State Hayward [now CSEB], and in 1968 he joined city staff as a playground leader. In 1975 he was hired full-time as a recreation programmer and assigned to San Pablo Park in south Berkeley.
“When I got hired, I really had a passion to teach younger kids how to participate and how to play,” Harper-Cotton said. “I coached baseball and basketball and football. There were leagues at that time that were set up at the schools and the rec centers, and so I coached teams.”
In the mid-1970s Harper-Cotton started a basketball tournament in honor of 17-year-old Greg Brown, a Berkeley High basketball player who’d died of sudden cardiac arrest during a game. The annual tournament ran for 25 years and drew up to 62 teams at its peak.
There were a few rocky years for recreation right after Prop. 13 passed in 1978. The recreation program lost numerous on-site and administrative personnel. Some staff members ended up going to the federally funded youth employment program, and a reduced staff was assigned to the recreation centers.
“We just kept the doors open for that particular summer of ‘78,” Harper-Cotton said. “We couldn’t do much. With two staff at San Pablo Park, which was a four- or five-acre park, we just opened the doors and made sure that nothing really bad happened.”
In roles of increasing responsibility through the years, Harper-Cotton started a number of programs in response to the needs of the community, some of which still exist, while others have run their course.
Twilight basketball for youth, Black history programs, a parenting program, the annual Community Picnic at Grove Park, and an aquatic program that offered swim lessons for every child in Berkeley schools — all have Harper-Cotton to thank.
The Twilight Basketball program that he started provided not only a chance to play basketball but “‘rap sessions,’ which were giving kids opportunities to understand how to live in a community, how to have different relationships between themselves and their neighbors, the police department.”
People from various agencies came to talk with Berkeley youth and help them navigate education and social situations. The idea was to “bring a lot of history and information about being in neighborhoods and in the community, and how to be good citizens. That was our whole focus: to work with them to be good citizens,” Harper-Cotton said. Rap sessions are an ongoing part of other recreation programs Friday.
“One thing I learned: programs come and go; you do good programs, and if you can get them to last ten, 15, 20 years, you know, or longer, you’re doing something right, cuz you’re getting people coming back and wanting to participate,” Harper-Cotton said.
Harper-Cotton said he’s proud of the parenting program he initiated. He wrote a grant to the San Francisco Foundation “to work with parents and to help them raise their kids, and learn how to get resources within the city for their children as well.”
Several different city departments and some nonprofits contributed. “It was a good collaborative effort,” said Harper-Cotton.
They invited parents of the city’s Young Adult Program and of other youth-serving agencies, and Berkeley public health nurses also helped spread the word.
“We tried to knock down all the obstacles. Not only did we feed them, we had transportation — we picked them up and we had childcare for them, and they did the sessions,” said Harper-Cotton. “We didn’t want any excuses saying, ‘I can’t come; I gotta feed my kids dinner’ — we’ll feed them. ‘I can’t get there’ — we’ll pick you up and drop you off.”
The project served primarily African American and Latino families from the early 1990s to 2006. There is still parenting training, in a somewhat changed form, within the city tots program.
Harper-Cotton said that a real high point for him was being a part of the Real Alternatives Program, or RAP. RAP started in 1988 and brought together several community-based agencies within the city to prevent at-risk youth from being drawn into the crack trade, according to an article by former Berkeley School Board President Pedro Noguera.
About $700,000 was dedicated to RAP and divided among different agencies. Some of it went to the Recreation Division and funded various activities.
“We took them on college tours, we taught them about business, we did counseling with them,” said Harper-Cotton. “We were really proud to be a part of that.”
When the then-recreation and youth services manager retired in 2004, Harper-Cotton moved into citywide administration and was head of the division for about a year-and-a-half.
Sharing the duties with another staffer, “gave me some experience about the overall function of the division,” Harper-Cotton said.
In 2006, after Berkeley hired Scott Ferris as the new recreation and youth services manager, Harper-Cotton became a recreation supervisor and was assigned to the aquatics program, adult sports, and the fee classes for the city, as well writing grants and re-doing the pools.
“My main function [earlier] was to work with the community and neighborhoods and really try to focus in on youth,” Harper-Cotton said, “and I tried to carry that over into the new area when I was supervising, as well as the aquatics program — recruiting students to get involved in swimming.”
“We had a program called ‘Every Kid to Swim,’ in which we were trying to teach kids that couldn’t afford swim lessons to be able to get them at least a start in learning how to swim, as well as their parents,” he said. They were able to get some parents and grandmothers in the water learning to swim, too.
From about 2011 to about 2014, they gave between 300 and 400 kids in the school district up to eight free swim lessons. That’s a program Harper-Cotton hopes the Rec Division will be able to repeat. The goal was getting as many low-income youths and families as possible to learn about and use the pools, and “from there we can get them into lifeguarding and some jobs,” he said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of kids out of the Youth Works program to become lifeguards for us. We have a very diverse group of lifeguards within the program,” he said.
As if all that weren’t enough, Harper-Cotton also helped run the summer lunch program at rec centers and school sites for the last 15 to 20 years.
“I’ve seen kids that have not had food to eat, don’t know where their next meal is coming — and that is happening even in the city of Berkeley,” Harper-Cotton said. “And so, to be able to provide that, I think it’s really, really, really important.”
Without a doubt, Harper-Cotton has been busy. He said he has a hard time saying “no” to things. Instead, “one of my favorite sayings is, ‘We’ll figure it out,’ and for the most part, we do,” he said.
“I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to work in the city, to work with kids and families,” he said. “It was a passion of mine.”
He’s also grateful for his bosses through the years. “I’ve had supervisors that have trusted me to be able to work and actually follow through and come through with things,” Harper-Cotton said.
Harper-Cotton praised his rec staff “as second to none” and remarked on their kind and giving work ethic. “They look out after your children,” he said.
“If we had a child that was hungry walk into the center looking for something to eat,” he said, “I’m quite sure staff would say, ‘Okay, we have something in the kitchen that you can eat, even if it’s a peanut butter sandwich.’”
“I’m hoping as I leave that I have some folks that have learned some stuff and will continue to grow to make the programs and the department strong,” Harper-Cotton said.
In retirement, Harper-Cotton plans to play with his grandkids, spend more time with his wife and do a bit of traveling. “I just want to be able to enjoy life,” he said.
Harper-Cotton said he will also continue to work with young people, “but on a volunteer basis.”