Recess Cleveland Recess Cleveland
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On a chilly night in February, Alexander Robertson skates into the middle of one of his intense games on the ice at The Rink at Wade Oval in University Circle. Around him, kids ages 7 to 12 armored in sanitized Body Zorbs, large ball-shaped inflatable body suits exposing only their legs for mobility and balance, slam into each other and roll out of bounds in an attempt to reach a large yellow hula hoop at the center of the rink.

“The goal is to stay on your feet,” Robertson shouts into his microphone as he steadily glides between the red and black teams. “A big part of this game is defense. If you can get one person from your team to stand in the hoop for five seconds, your team wins.”

Tonight’s game is part of a series of modified winter pop-up events Robertson has planned for his organization, Recess Cleveland. Since the pandemic, his programs have continued to provide families and children the opportunity to remain mobile outside of their homes, encouraging physical activity and community engagement after spending long days online for work and school. Under the glowing lights and thermo tiki heaters, parents and caregivers cheer on their kids as they huddle together at the edge of the rink with steaming hot chocolate.

In 2015, Robertson launched his nonprofit as a creative way to gather his Glenville neighbors and surrounding communities to play old-school games like dodgeball and kickball in vacant lots around the city. His gatherings quickly spread through word-of-mouth and, after learning schools had significantly reduced playtime, he started hosting his events at various elementary schools to help raise awareness around the benefits of recess for kids. Robertson launched free weekly outdoor games for families and children across Cleveland in an effort to revitalize under-resourced parks and neighborhood green spaces. After garnering success and overwhelming community support, he realized Recess Cleveland held a secret power: by uniting communities through organized playtime, he could help rebuild and connect neighborhoods and strengthen relationships among neighbors.

“We had this power to bring people who normally don’t go to community events or meetings to get them outside to play games and interact,” Robertson says. “So, we started using Recess as the connector to bring resources to our events to increase the quality of life for as many people as possible living in the city.”

In the last two years, Robertson has partnered with local organizations, community development corporations and companies to gather residents in need of resources and services, and connect them to job opportunities, free meals, health care information and much more. When COVID-19 regulated strict guidelines of large public gatherings last March, Robertson worked swiftly to provide new socially distanced programming and games.

Tonight, as players carefully waddle back and forth on the ice, Robertson hopes they’re able to find a temporary escape from classwork and computer screens. While they play safely with kids from neighboring boroughs, Robertson introduces parents to Neighborhood Connections, whose services support Cleveland residents.

After almost two hours on the ice, when the next scheduled group fails to arrive, Robertson creates a new game on the fly. Zorbio Kart, he explains, is a modified version of the popular go-kart style racing game, Super Mario Kart, and players will have to race against each other down to one end of the ice rink and back in their bubble suits.

“While you can’t throw red and green shells, you are allowed to throw soccer balls, Zorbs and bump into each other to trip up your opponents,” Robertson chuckles into the microphone.

When he blows the whistle, communal chaos ensues as parents and kids wobble their way down the slippery ice with concentration, only to be met with pellets of red, blue and orange soccer balls.

“The hardest part is just getting people to come out to the event,” Robertson says. “But once they show up and the games start, people see how much fun everyone is having, and those barriers we all have up begin to break down.”

Robertson was surrounded by the richness of community and compassion when he was a child. Living in Glenville with his grandparents, aunt, mom and younger brother, it was his grandmother who taught him a lot about resourcefulness, conviction and generosity. In the summer, she would sit on the porch of their home and invite residents in need of food to join her. 

“It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from school and see somebody I never met before sitting at the table eating a meal she cooked for them,” says Robertson.

He attended St. Agatha St. Aloysius School up until the summer before sixth grade. His teacher recommended Robertson’s mother to allow him to attend the REACH program, a summer course at University School for gifted African American students. The program was designed for middle school boys to foster and develop skills for academic excellence. He did so well that University School invited him to attend full time.

“That invitation turned out to be a turning point in my life,” says Robertson.

The transition to University School was a bit of a culture shock. Robertson remembered St. Agatha St. Aloysius had a predominately African American student body, but he was one of only six Black students in his graduating class at University School where there were state-of-the-art computer labs, flight simulators and stock market computer games he could use to assist with his classwork. While most of his classmates were working with computers, he had still been typing his English papers on an electronic typewriter.

“I was feeling so ashamed those first days of school,” Robertson says. “I knew we weren’t wealthy, but I didn’t know about wealth until I started going there.”

Although he felt like he didn’t fit in, he found community by attending the school’s field days, where the entire student body competed in games such as 30-on-30 battleball, a version of dodgeball that allows anyone on the sidelines to get other players out. Robertson dominated the competition, getting up to 15 opponents out by himself at a time and making him the one to beat.

“The days were set up like those games at Hogwarts in Harry Potter where there were 12 different houses and everybody came into school wearing their house T-shirts,” Robertson says. “It took me time to realize it, but it’s not where you come from, it’s what you do with it.” 

He went on to attend Columbia University to study computer engineering and he was the first in his family to graduate from college. After graduating, Robertson worked in investment banking for a few years. During the height of the 2008 recession, he decided to pivot and work as a consultant, assisting small businesses with developing websites and marketing. While visiting home in 2014, he tore his Achilles tendon while playing basketball at Euclid Beach Park, and Robertson decided to move back to his mother’s house in Cleveland where he could recover. 

His mother recommended his name to a few community organizations in Glenville and a representative from the Famicos Foundation asked if he would be interested in becoming a mentor for a youth landscaping program. At first, Robertson turned it down because he was still recovering.

“I remember just thinking, I’m on the couch, I can’t walk. You want me to push a lawnmower?” Robertson chuckles. “They said they just needed a mentor and told me I can ride a bike.” 

For the next four years, Robertson taught life skills and workforce development to about 34 kids each summer. But in the summer of 2015, he noticed there were not as many kids playing outside in Glenville as there had once been when he was their age. So, Robertson asked five of the kids if they wanted to play a game of dodgeball. Four of them said they had never played before, which sparked an idea.

“I wanted to give kids the opportunity to drop their phones, drop their screens and go back to socializing and playing old-school games like we used to back in the day,” says Robertson.

He applied for a grant from Neighborhood Connections and received $2,000 to host an event at the former Harry E. Davis Elementary School near Churchill Avenue and East 105th Street. On Aug. 9, 2015 Robertson invited neighbors, families, friends and residents to join in the fun. More than 100 people attended the all-day event where they ate food, participated in line dancing and played games.

“I was real slick about it,” Robertson laughs. “We threw it the day after we had a big neighborhood block party and I was able to pass out flyers. It was also my birthday, so all my friends and neighbors were obligated to come.” 

During a 7 p.m. kickball game, those who still remained divided into teams with everyone 21 and under facing against a team of 14 adults. When a 65-year-old grandmother walked up for her first kick, several high schoolers from Glenville and Collinwood took 10 steps in from the outfield in preparation for an easy out. The pitcher, a 5-year-old grandson of a woman from Clark-Fulton, rolled the ball and the grandmother kicked it so hard it went over the left fielder’s head.

“She started running toward first base saying, ‘Yep, I still got it!’ and after she made it to first, she yelled back, ‘I need another runner,’ ” Robertson chuckles. “I realized something like this never happens and I had to do it again.”

That first event snowballed into an abundance of community support. By August 2018, Robertson had hosted a number of events with bounce houses, playground equipment and potlucks, and he obtained a small school bus in hopes of providing free transportation to future events. Named the Fun Bus, Robertson started picking up families and transporting volunteers to events in neighborhoods such as Detroit Shoreway, Glenville, West Park and Clark-Fulton.

“We had this idea that instead of forcing people to come to us, why don’t we go to them,” says Robertson. “Organizations with services and CDCs with information and resources who partnered with us had to do the same. It was that effort that made me realize, there’s more magic to this than just playtime.”

In 2008, Moneeke Davis and her five children rented a house off of Eddy Road on the East Side of Cleveland. She was attending Brown Mackie College to become a licensed practical nurse and worked multiple jobs to meet the needs for her family. But when neighborhood gangs began harassing her kids to join their crew, Davis reached out to city leaders and police on multiple occasions for help.

“Cleveland said it wasn’t their issue, the police said they couldn’t do anything since nothing happened and East Cleveland said it wasn’t in their jurisdiction,” Davis says. “I wanted someone to do something before something bad happened.”

While attending a Sunday church service, Davis received a phone call that her house was targeted in a drive-by shooting. Bullets ripped through the doors, walls and windows of her home. She feared for her safety and that if she returned to the house, she would lose not only her life but also the lives of her children. For two years, the family was homeless and split up between different relatives and trusted caregivers. 

“I refused to go back,” Davis says. “I would have rather split us up so I could figure out my life. I eventually graduated from nursing school and got the help we needed.” 

After relocating to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, Davis joined a variety of residential advisory boards around empowering youth and community gardening. She realized her part of the neighborhood felt disconnected. If you lived north of Franklin Boulevard or Bridge Avenue, the roads were cleaner, well-lit and had nicer green spaces. If you lived south of Madison Avenue, there were small alleyways filled with clutter and homes were stacked on top of each other. 

“I felt like the reasons why those bad things happened to us was because I wasn’t connected enough to the community,” Davis says. “That is why I decided to throw a block party.” 

In August 2016, Davis met with the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization to host a back-to-school event on the lawn of a vacant parking lot near Guthrie Avenue. It was around that time that Davis met Robertson and asked if Recess Cleveland could provide games and activities for the kids. Together, they produced one of the first block parties the neighborhood had ever seen. 

“Moneeke provided the barbers and braiders for kids’ hair, she gathered school supplies and pamphlets and flyers from the CDC office,” Robertson says. “Moneeke’s event became the formula and a major contribution to start including services, organizations and CDCs into our events where residents can benefit from their services and activate neglected park spaces.”

That first event transpired into a weekly summer series for the next three consecutive years. Residents from Detroit Shoreway and surrounding communities had the opportunity to attend barbecues, information sessions and play a slew of backyard games for free. What the DSCDO admired about the partnership Davis and Recess Cleveland created was that it provided an expressed need from community members who were looking for spaces for their children to play. 

“Families south of Madison Avenue have less access to play spaces overall and have a harder time accessing amenities like Edgewater Park,” says Jenny Spencer, Ward 15 councilmember and former managing director of DSCDO. “Alex and his team have designed a program that can transform or take place in any space, and because of its flexibility, it has been immensely invaluable for children and families in our area.” 

According to a 2020 study conducted by the Trust for Public Land, 83% of Clevelanders live within a 10-minute walk from their local park. However, such spaces may not provide positive environments.

“Sometimes in cities that are older or more established, you get parks or spaces that were constructed several decades ago but are no longer functional for the community,” says Sean Terry, Ohio Parks for People program director for the Trust for Public Land. “Recess [Cleveland] offers this unique approach and allows us to say this space can be activated and reengage the community, especially in under-resourced areas.” 

Last March, Robertson collaborated with the Trust for Public Land and Art x Love in the Clark-Fulton and Stockyards neighborhoods to encourage outdoor activity and organize suggestions for needed amenities to revitalize green spaces in the community. Last May, the partnership circulated 1,000 copies of the Parks Unlimited Activity Book and launched a social media campaign, where winners received a five-gallon bucket filled with play items such as a ball, chalk, art supplies, kite-making kits, jump ropes and playing cards with up to 20 games and activities. The first 100 buckets were free for 15 recreation centers thanks to the support of the city of Cleveland. Terry saw it as an opportunity for neighborhoods to envision new playgrounds, sports facilities, seating and farmers markets.

“The feedback we get from residents on structured play areas and amenities help us think about how we can implement formal programming and funding into these areas and work to build healthy and equitable communities,” says Terry.

Last summer, after DSCDO received a grant from the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, Recess Cleveland partnered with them and neighborhood restaurants such as Gypsy Beans & Baking Co. and Ninja City to provide boxed meals, face masks, flyers on COVID-19 programs and protocols and a safe space for parents and children to play outside. Conversations from these events have even sparked renewed investment into some of the underutilized parks and green spaces near the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center.

“This all has made families on the other side feel connected and a part of this neighborhood, something that had not happened to them for many years,” says Davis.

A crumbling, short brick building sits at the top of a steep mound on Woodland Avenue, giving a panoramic view of downtown, University Circle and Cleveland Clinic headquarters. Stripped and faded houses pack the compound’s single stretch of road. A black cage-like fence wraps around the entire facade, leaving space only for narrow sidewalks and concrete staircases.

Built in 1940, Woodhill Homes is one of the oldest public housing facilities on Cleveland’s East Side. For decades, its residents like Marilyn Burns have witnessed and endured the effects of residential segregation, the amalgamation of racism, structural inequality and disinvestment of the city, from their porch stoops. Burns believes the false promises of revenue and renewal for her community have left scars of mistrust, disengagement and helplessness in her neighbors.  

“Crack came, stayed and stuck. Then came the violence,” says Burns. “The disparities deepened and so did those empty promises of change. The woundedness happening here — I see it and I speak from that lens. All of it has been a slap in the face to me and my people for years and years.” 

At 66, Burns, or Miss Marilyn, is the grand matriarch of the complex for many individuals, families and children in Woodhill. For 18 years, she has actively worked as a grassroots advocate speaking to leaders and city officials to combat the negative reports and stigmas attached to her home. It is this passion that made her reach out to Robertson on Feb. 12 and request if Recess Cleveland could partner and help her host an outdoor winter family fun event at the Woodhill Community Center.

With the pandemic, residents have been bombarded by unemployment, food insecurity and isolation. It was a chance for Burns to revive her neighbors’ spirits with sledding tournaments and snowball fights and free giveaways of personal protective equipment, hats, gloves, scarves, notebooks and other school supplies for kids prior to school reopening in March. 

“I had read and saw all of what Alex was doing in the community and I just appreciated the concept of his organization and how it really just brings people out,” Burns says. “There has never been an event like this before in Woodhill and I wanted to give a hug to my community from the inside.” 

For the Feb. 20 event, Burns and Robertson combined their efforts to provide different types of racing sleds, snowball makers, games and toys. Volunteers from Woodland Hills and Buckeye assisted with items such as hot chocolate, snacks, music and prizes for line dancing.

“Great ideas and collaborations build hope again,” Robertson says.

After Recess Cleveland arrived, the park became alive, filled with smiling children and parents brimming with joy as they ran up and down the hills on their new sleds. It was a feeling Robertson had missed since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Oh my goodness, the kids made me feel like Santa Claus,” Robertson chuckles.

With spring and summer on the horizon, Robertson sees the Woodhill Community Center green space as a potential spot and central location for Buckeye, Larchmere, Shaker Square and Woodland Hills residents to gather and congregate for future games and barbecues. 

“Families and kids have connected with each other and now have learned games to continue playing with friends they made today in this neighborhood for days and weeks after this event ends,” Robertson says. “My hope is to just drive by one day and see this space activated with happy kids and families having fun in their local space when Recess Cleveland is not here.”

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