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 firstname.lastname@example.org.