Port Richmond’s own Superwoman

Susan Ongirski has ded­ic­ated her life to en­han­cing the Port Rich­mond com­munity in spite of tre­mend­ous odds.


Susan Ongirski is try­ing to coax her dog, Ban­dit, out of the path of her wheel­chair in the liv­ing room of her Port Rich­mond home.

“Come on, Ban­dit, Mommy has to get by,” she says to the Cock­er Span­iel, Rot­t­weiler and Husky mix. Ban­dit is a lov­able teddy bear of a dog that’s prac­tic­ally been Ongirski’s shad­ow all af­ter­noon. She fi­nally man­ages to di­vert his at­ten­tion by toss­ing a crunchy treat across the room that he eagerly runs to fetch.

“Ban­dit just nev­er leaves my side,” Ongirski says as she is fi­nally free to roll across the room and hand a vis­it­ing friend some tee shirts he came by to pick up.

The friend is the second in an hour to vis­it the Gault Street home where Ongirski lives with her 80-year-old moth­er, Mary. From the af­fec­tion she re­ceives from friends, her moth­er and even her loy­al dog, it’s clear Ongirski is the sort of wo­man who makes an im­pact.

The 52-year-old Port Rich­mond res­id­ent has been wheel­chair-bound since her 20s, when she was dia­gnosed with a con­di­tion called spin­al neuro­pathy that para­lyzed her legs. Now, she’s bat­tling Stage II uter­ine can­cer, re­cov­er­ing from a rad­ic­al hys­ter­ec­tomy as a res­ult of the ill­ness, and po­ten­tially fa­cing ra­di­ation treat­ment.

All the while, she said she’s look­ing for­ward to re­turn­ing to her life as a very act­ive mem­ber of the Port Rich­mond com­munity and sec­ret­ary of the Friends of Camp­bell Square group, of which she is a founder.

As Ongirski moves from her wheel­chair—that’s ad­orned in tiny Amer­ic­an flag stick­ers—to a big cushy arm­chair, she raves about the neigh­bor­hood she calls home.

“I won’t ever move out of Port Rich­mond,” she says. “Neigh­bors in oth­er neigh­bor­hoods, they don’t talk to each oth­er as they pass by. Here, people still know how to talk to each oth­er, [they] still know how to greet each oth­er. It’s great.”

Her en­thu­si­asm led her to take ac­tion nearly ten years ago to help over­haul Camp­bell Square, the park at Bel­grade Street and Al­legheny Av­en­ue that she says was once un­safe and filled with rampant drug use.

“Neigh­bors would walk all the way around the park be­cause they were so afraid,” Ongirski says. “A lot of people star­ted ask­ing, ‘What can we do?’”

Ongirski then ap­proached Bar­bara Mc­Cabe, now the parks co­ordin­at­or for the city’s Parks and Re­cre­ation de­part­ment. Mc­Cabe told Ongirski that many neigh­bors were co­ordin­atng groups that worked to sup­port loc­al parks. Ongirski then began to put the word out and held the first meet­ings of the Friends of Camp­bell Square.

“Neigh­bors were really happy to have this. The meet­ings were like a sound­ing board,” Ongirski says.

Friends of Camp­bell Square (FOCS) is made pos­sible through dona­tions from res­id­ents and loc­al busi­nesses, as well as through grants from the Pennsylvania Hor­ti­cul­ture So­ci­ety and the de­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation.

FOCS now has 12 mem­bers, and works to host a com­munity event at least once a month. Up­com­ing events in­clude a “Flash­back Fri­day” dance party, a flea mar­ket and a movie night.

“It is gor­geous now. There are four or five new gar­dens [in the park], and we’ve had a his­tor­ic­al sign and benches put in,” Ongirski says. “To see the park be­ing used makes me feel so good. I am so proud.”

Along with her work with FOCS, Ongirski is deeply in­volved in Port Rich­mond.

She col­lects money along the walk­ing route dur­ing the Ladies of Port Rich­mond Breast Can­cer Walk; she rep­res­ents FOCS in the Port Rich­mond Me­mori­al Day Parade; she col­lects money for the Sal­va­tion Army at Christ­mas­time at the Path­mark on Ara­mingo Av­en­ue; she sings sop­rano in the adult choir of Our Lady Help of Chris­ti­ans church, and she has rowed for 10 years as part of the Phil­adelphia Ad­apt­ive Row­ing Pro­gram (PAR). Many of her in­volve­ments ground to a halt this year, though, when she was dia­gnosed with can­cer.

As she re­cov­ers from the rad­ic­al hys­ter­ec­tomy she un­der­went April 9, she’s been un­able to row for PAR or par­ti­cip­ate in the breast can­cer walk.

“I don’t miss any­thing any year,” she says. “For me to have to miss so much this year star­ted get­ting me dis­cour­aged.”

The com­munity, though, ral­lied be­hind her.

Ongirski said her friend Patty-Pat Kozlowski, who writes for The Spir­it com­munity news­pa­per, helped en­sure that Ongirski would be able to par­ti­cip­ate in the Port Rich­mond Me­mori­al Day Parade this year.

Kozlowski ar­ranged for Ongirski to ride along the parade route in a bus provided by the Sug­ar House Casino.

The day of the parade, Ongirski said “a few big guys” helped her break down her wheel­chair then lif­ted her in­to the bus, where she was able to sit in the back and throw tee shirts out to the parade crowd.

“We had an ab­so­lute blast,” she says. “To me, it was so im­port­ant.”

Ongirski, who works as an of­fice tech­ni­cian and re­cep­tion­ist for Com­har, Inc., can’t re­turn to work un­til Ju­ly 19 as she re­cov­ers from her sur­gery and pos­sibly un­der­goes ra­di­ation ther­apy.

Un­til then, she says she’s con­stantly vis­it­ing with friends and cowork­ers, and she of­fers to help people with typ­ing or their own of­fice work.

Jen Bytof, events co­ordin­at­or for FOCS, says that Ongirski mo­tiv­ated Bytof to get in­volved with the group four years ago.

“She has such a great spir­it,” Bytof says of Ongirski. “No mat­ter what, she al­ways has a smile on.”

Bytof, 39, who lives on Thompson Street, said FOCS has really turned Camp­bell Square around, and Ongirski is to thank.

“We have these great events in the sum­mer, and it is be­cause of Susan’s work,” Bytof says. “She’s just such a won­der­ful per­son. Noth­ing stops her.”

As Ongirski re­cov­ers, she says she wants to get back to the per­son she was—someone who is noth­ing if not stead­fastly pos­it­ive.

“A lot of people con­stantly tell me, ‘No mat­ter what, you’re go­ing through, you al­ways have a pos­it­ive at­ti­tude,’” she says.

“You nev­er know how much sup­port you have un­til something really hap­pens.”

Ongirski is quick to share in­form­a­tion about her­self, and has writ­ten a list of her in­volve­ments, her fa­vor­ite things to do, and what she says is her fa­vor­ite quote.

“A dis­ab­il­ity should not be seen as a curse of life,” it reads, “But wel­comed as a chal­lenge to show oth­ers what you are able to do.”

To learn more about the Friends of Camp­bell Square’s ef­forts, vis­it www.face­book.com/Camp­bell­Square.

Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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