Ray Smeriglio: Building Community in the City

This week’s Portrait, Ray Smeriglio, has been working to make life better for all since his days as an ambassador for Temple University. The 29-year-old Smeriglio lives and breathes Philadelphia. He has served on the Mayor’s Millennial Advisory Committee, formerly chaired Back on My Feet Philadelphia’s Young Leaders Association, and currently serves on the board of directors for the Fairmount Water Works. His latest job and biggest passion is serving as the Chief of Staff for Rebuild, a project made possible by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, which will invest hundreds of millions of dollars into recreational facilities and libraries across the city in some of the most underserved areas. Oh, and he’s also partnered with NBC10/Telemundo62 cutie Miguel Martinez-Valle (featured here last September).

So I tried to do a little research on you, and when I googled the name Smeriglio, I came up with a firefighter and a pizza store owner. Any connection?

Yes, they’re both my dad, Raymond Smeriglio. I’m not technically a junior because we have different middle names but I feel like one. I was born to Ray and Steph, and for the first few years of my life my dad owned a pizza shop, then he made a total switch and got into rescue products and became a pretty rockstar salesperson until one day he said, “Why don’t I do this on my own?” and started his own company which was pretty cool. 

Nice, so he wasn’t out there fighting fires? 

Well, he was also a volunteer firefighter at the local fire company, Camp Hill Fire company and finished as assistant chief. So he had his full time gig, he was raising a family and was an amazing community member as well. 

And mom?

Mom is… probably the most caring and loving person on the planet. My parents met working at Dunkin’ Donuts when they were 15 and 16 years old. They had my sister not too long after and had me 7 years later. I have a younger brother too, we’re all 7 years apart. Mom is also from Central PA; she worked the first several years of my life, but when my brother came along she became a full time mom and was there for us while my dad was building his business. My parents are great, they now live in a little condo in Mechanicsburg and visit us all the time. In fact one of the reasons we’re moving to a bigger house is to make sure we have room for our families when they visit. When Miguel’s family visits they come in strong too. 

Miguel and Ray

It seems that you both have deep family connections. 

It’s true. You know, I fell in love with Miguel for a whole host of reasons, but I think it’s our families and how we are with them that made the difference. When you look at the runway for your life and you see all those folks with you, it’s like, this is what makes us great. It makes me want to spend the rest of my life with him and by extension them. [Laughing] I think he feels the same about my side too! 

I think so. What were some of the things that you excelled at in school? It seems you were a bit of a jock. 

I went to Catholic grade school, and it was a good experience. I had really good friends there and it felt like I hit my stride in 7th and 8th grade from a sports perspective, because especially back then, when you were good at sports, it put you in the popular crowd. But when I got to high school as a closeted gay kid, I had a rough go of it. I was trying to find myself and figure out who and what I was, and it was tough trying to fit in. But I developed a great group of friends who were nearby at Camp Hill High School, and this is what makes my parents such amazing people. They saw the struggle I was having at Trinity and they decided to move to Camp Hill so I could go to school with my new friends. So I changed schools at the end of my sophomore year, which is a sentence that doesn’t typically end with, “and then everything was great!” but it was. Going back to your statement, I guess I was a jock, I played soccer, basketball and ran track and absolutely loved it. 

Greatest sports accomplishment?

For me? I set the record for the 100 meter dash which remained unbroken for a long period of time. Globally? My favorite moment is when my younger brother won the soccer state championship. He’s a hard worker and we were really proud of him. Those were the Smeriglio peaks in the sports world. 

That was great that your parents went to such lengths. 

Yes, I distinctly remember being in the car when my parents got the call that they got the new house they wanted in Camp Hill. I started crying in the backseat because it meant I’d be able to switch schools. My dad stopped the car and got out and gave me a big hug. He started crying too along with my mom because they knew I was having a tough time at Trinity. 

Sounds like it. 

And the crazy thing is I thought I was doing a pretty good job of hiding who I was, but there were some older boys who tapped into it and they became pretty vicious, said some awful things. There were some lewd acts, well not acts, no assaults or anything, but just nothing kind. It was completely different at the new school. 

What other extra curricular things were you involved in?

A lot. I was the Pep club president my senior year, and that was a blast. My dad would probably overstate my volunteer firefighting days, but I did sign up and went on at least one call.

Tell me about ending up at Temple and the mystery behind it?

Glad you asked. I did NOT want to go to Temple. My sister went there, and though she had a great time, I wanted to go somewhere on my own. I submitted to 11 schools and Temple was not one of them, so when I received my acceptance letter I was extremely confused. Someone else apparently applied for me (still don’t know who to this day) but knew I did not want to go there, so I threw it to the side. I ended up falling in love with Drexel, but apparently Drexel did not love me, and after a fiasco with finance promises broken, I had to choose between West Chester and Temple. I chose Temple because it was in the city and it was the best decision. 

You became Mr. Temple!

In high school I was always super involved in everything. I decided that in college I was going to chill, just make friends and hang out. That lasted a semester until I was itching to do something. I started getting involved with different programs and my love for Temple blossomed. 

I saw somewhere you became an Owl Guide. I’m guessing that’s not a zoo internship. 

No! That first semester I applied to be a tour guide. Hundreds of people apply for the job and they pick about 15 people per class, so I was through the roof when I got it. The job was to walk prospective students around and get them excited about the school. The more I learned, the more I loved it. I even stayed my freshman summer to welcome the new students. There were all sorts of different people doing all different things, and that helped me start to open up about who I was. Eventually I became student body president and the experience was amazing. It was also my first foray into advocacy. How do you get a seat at the table and how do you make sure that people’s voices are heard?

When did you come out?

I was outed my sophomore year in college. I met a lot of people and started to feel more comfortable and explore certain things. I started seeing a few guys, and one of them told someone and she told ALL my friends, so I was outed to everyone at once. I was horrified and scared, but looking back I shouldn’t have been, all my friends were so supportive. When I told my mom, it was like nothing, same with my dad, though I think he was a little more afraid for me because of things that he’d read. His response was how can I help you? He would always say, “Love is a verb.”

That was quite a ride. What did you do after Temple? 

I stayed! My love of Temple got to me and I was offered a job in the athletic department as the Assistant Director of Development. I was in fundraising, which was a blast, and I got to be the emcee for basketball and football games. In the stands with 70,000 people while we were playing Notre Dame and me on the mic saying “Hey! It’s time for the Dunkin’ Donuts dash of the game!” It was super fun. There was a lot of travel involved too, but in the end I didn’t love fundraising, which is funny when we get to what I’m doing now. 

I really didn’t know if I didn’t like fundraising or if I just didn’t like working for my alma mater, which I was told could be tricky, so when I got recruited by Villanova, I went. I met awesome people there too and raised quite a bit of money. The goal was $400,000 and I raised over two million! It was fun, but even after hitting that mark, I still wasn’t jazzed up about what I was doing. I wanted something different, so I worked for Saxbys for a minute helping them grow their experiential learning platform, which is a program that empowers young people to run their own Saxbys cafes. Then the pandemic hit and slowed everyone down. It gave me a chance to say, “If you could do anything right now, what would you want to do?” 

I had this moment, and Miguel probably remembers, where I suddenly had a call to serve, to be an advocate, in a way that directly impacted people of Philadelphia. I felt it deep down. A friend, Deana Gamble, told me about the job with Rebuild. Back when I was on the Mayor’s Millennial Advisory Committee I remember this guy named David coming to talk to us about this project and was amazed, I was like, “This is awesome!” So when I saw the job, I knew this was it. I went through a series of interviews and here we are! 

Perfect! Give me a description of what it is?

I’m currently the Chief of Staff and First Deputy for the Rebuild Initiative. Rebuild is the city’s historic investment in public spaces. 425-50 million dollars being directly injected into different parks, recreation centers, and libraries across the city, mostly in historically neglected, underfunded and underserved neighborhoods. The projects range from $500,000 to more than $15 million. It is truly the city’s first step in reversing a level of neglect and marginalization that’s spanned a century. It’s incredible, we have sites all over. It puts me through the roof; it’s so amazing. 

I started as our communications director and built up a really robust team and 4 months in, my boss, the one who recruited me, went to another job and I was able to step into the job as Chief of Staff. So now I oversee the fundraising team, [laughing] it all comes back to that, our communications team, and all of our intergovernmental affairs which includes working with our state electeds, the federal government from the White House to the Senate, and all of our city council. 

That’s a lot!

Yes, but I’m excited. Our motto is “Building stronger communities, one park, recreation center, and library at a time.” We lead the capital improvements for Parks and Recs and the Free Libraries at the 72 sites that have been designated by City Council so far. For example I’m here at 13th and Federal, and Capitolo playground is at 9th and Federal. They received over three million dollars in investment and we’ve put in brand new fields, a state-of-the-art mini-pitch for soccer, along with new shade trees and outdoor gathering areas. 

About 15 blocks from here, is Vare Rec Center; it’s in a neighborhood which has been historically neglected. At one point the building was being held up by wooden stilts! We’re putting over 20 million dollars into that site. They’re going to get a new building, new fields, new play spaces, you name it. We have projects like that all over the city and we’re reversing decades of disinvestment in these areas. 

Okay, fun question time: I noticed that you worked on the gay web series “One of the Guys” with my friend, Michael Busza. 

Yes! I was the production manager for a few episodes. Funny thing is I wasn’t even out yet at that time! 

Oh no! Favorite sport?

Basketball, I still like to play. 

What’s the dumbest thing you did as a kid?

Oh my God, okay, my best friend Jamie always went down South for family vacations. They had looser restrictions on firework sales, so he’d come back with big fire rockets, mortars! They were illegal to set off in PA but we decided to go out at 11 at night and light one of them up. We went to an underpass, lit it and ran out. The underpass flashed green as the giant boom shook the WHOLE TOWN! I don’t think we ever got caught, and thankfully there was no structural damage! 

What animal are you afraid of?

I don’t understand cats. I think they’re smarter than us and that scares me. 

An athlete or celebrity you’d like to be stuck in an elevator with?

Sugar and Spice from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Best vacation with Miguel? 

We travel a lot, but Miguel knows that I’ve always loved going down to the shore, it’s my happy place. Right when the pandemic let up a little the first time, he rented a little condo in Ocean City for just the two of us. We just hung out and went to the beach by ourselves and it was a moment of normalcy after things had been so surreal. It was one of my favorite moments together. 

Last time you cried?

Today! I was at the deli waiting for my meatless meatball sandwich. While I was waiting, that video came on where the guy asks a mom for a dollar, and when she helps him out he surprises her with $500 and Eagles tickets. 

How do you start your day? 

My phone rings with a message, “Expect only the best and think only the best!”