Welcome to Germantown…

In February 2017, I spent four days at the St. Vincent DePaul Young Adult Center on a service retreat with my college, St. John’s University. We traveled from Queens, New York to Germantown, PA in order to do service with the community of Germantown and be able to reflect on our work through discussion and prayer. We knew that in some ways our perspectives on homelessness and poverty would be changed during this trip; however, we did not realize that we would be challenged with the question of food sustainability (food desserts and poor wages in certain areas make healthy eating impossible and cause a chain effect of negative consequences on families), with the difference between working with people rather than for people, and with the thought that maybe we make too many assumptions about the way people live before understanding their situation. This last notion, in particular, struck me the most after having lunch with one of the men who was receiving a meal at Whosoever Gospel Mission, which provides shelter, food, skills training, etc. to those who are in need in any situation. I was able to have lunch with one of the men there and at first, I definitely felt intimidated and maybe even a little scared to say something offensive or “wrong”. But we talked for 45 minutes about everyday things, including the topic of school when he told me about the parties he used to go to when he was in college. He took a large interest in what my hobbies were and the fact that I wanted to be a psychologist; he jokingly asked me if I was evaluating him and the funny part was that I was doing anything but that. Instead, it felt like I was talking to an old friend or a friendly face on the block of my neighborhood. Which was why I was so distraught when he shared with me that he and his family members were not close anymore, particularly his well educated sister, because of his situation. It was shocking to me that this kind man who took time out of his day to take an interest in my life, a stranger’s life, could be looked down upon. This was the spark, this compassionate man with a hidden story, that carries the flame behind this online blog.

 

The goal of Faces of Germantown is to collect stories and pictures from the people who reside, serve, or obtain services in the neighborhoods of Germantown. Through this project, the hope is to breakdown the stigmas surrounding urban poverty and showcase the talents and value that these neighborhoods bring to the table. As opposed to the dehumanizing newspaper headlines and narrow viewpoints of media and news stations, this site works to tell the complete story of both the struggles and the joys of those who belong to Germantown.

 

Before I left my new friend after our meal together to return to the working area, I told him what my name was. Upon hearing my name spoken out loud for the first time, a huge smile broke out on the man’s face and he said the words that made me truly believe that we are all more connected than we could ever possibly imagine, “That’s my sister’s name, too.” 

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Laura

Laura Ford was born in Southwest Philadelphia where she attended West Catholic Girls High School. After graduating, Laura obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Immaculata College. Her first job out of college was in Germantown at the Claver’s School for Girls, a residential center for girls committed by the court, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. She then went on to work in student services in a nursing school until she took time off of work when her son was born. Laura reentered the workforce at Chestnut Hill College as the Director of Financial Aid for nine years and in that time, completed a masters program in counseling. It took her about a year of searching and taking another financial aid office job before she discovered where her true passion lies. Her friends told her about a opening through Catholic Social Services to work with women in the county prison. Laura had never thought about working in a prison before, but after touring the jail and meeting the women, she instantly knew that was where she belonged. She developed a prenatal education program for the pregnant women in the jail. Through this experience, she began to meet with women individually in the chaplain office. After her first year there, she went on to become the director of the prison ministry program of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She coordinated all of the religious Catholic services and volunteers who came into the prisons. During this time, she worked with Vincentian Father Greg Cozzubbo, who was then the Catholic chaplain of the Philadelphia prison system. Together, they began to notice that the same people were coming in and out of jail and that they wanted to respond to this issue of reentry. They developed a mentor program where they trained volunteers to work in teams of three with one inmate, beginning a relationship inside the jail and continuing for a year after they left. As a way of responding to their practical needs, she also collected clothes and toiletries for prisoners returning to the community. During this time they also received an annual grant from the Vincentians to help people with needs such as first month’s rent, job search expenses, etc.

Laura retired from full time work with the Archdiocese and then, along with Vincentian Father Tim Lyons, started a small re entry program at her parish of St. Vincent’s Church in Germantown. In responding to the needs of the formerly incarcerated, they realized that the most difficult challenge for these men and women was finding work because of their criminal record. During this time, Laura had been meeting with a group of men called People Advancing Reintegration (PAR) in the Graterford State prison. These men, serving life sentences themselves, developed a program of classes for men who are eligible for parole on how to set goals, make decisions, and create a written plan of action for when they are out of prison. Along with these men, Laura, her friend Mimi, her husband George, and Father Tim Lyons realized they needed to start their own business. They researched and found a company called Recycle Force in Indianapolis who hired men returning from prison to the community and recycled used electronics. These electronics are collected, deconstructed, and sold to scrap dealers, creating an income for the employees. After visiting Recycle Force, the team decided to start their own business in Philadelphia. They began by collecting donations of electronics from local businesses and schools, including hosting a recycling event at St. Vincent’s Church. Then, they hired three men who recently left prison and then found a warehouse in Germantown where they officially began operations in February of 2016.

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The larger goal of PAR-Recycle Works today is not only to provide transitional employment to people returning from prison but also to immerse them in a supportive environment that helps them adapt to live outside of prison. The goal is for people to stay with the company for 6-9 months before assisting them with full time employment and responding to some of their other personal and developmental needs. This is accomplished by deconstructing computers and other electronics and recycling them into properties that are sold to pay their employees.

“We loved the connection between hiring people who generally get thrown away themselves and also electronics that get thrown away.”

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Q1 : At the center, we talk about the importance of not judging people that we encounter and recognizing that everyone has a complicated story beyond their immediate struggles. So, as someone who works with people who are returning from prison and seeking employment to move on with their lives, what would you say you’ve learned from those encounters that may contradict judgment someone else’s perception who doesn’t do the work that you do?

“Well, I see people who really have changed from their experience in prison, especially those who have been in for a long time. I see people who really want a second chance and want to work hard to get it. And if given a chance to be hired, they actually respond to it. They respond to the learning experience, they respond to your concern. They’re just like everyone else. They are looking for community, they’re looking for a paycheck, they want to know what it’s like to go out to work in the morning and be able to provide for their families. They have all those desires and they just happened to have made sometimes very terrible mistakes. But they all deserve, in my opinion, a second chance. People who visit our warehouse and meet our team are always impressed by their enthusiasm, good manners – all of the opposite things of how people perceive people who have been incarcerated. And they want a family life, they want to raise their children, they want to be a good example to their children – all those things.”

 

Q2 : You had said you never felt scared to encounter people who have been incarcerated. Do you think that was because it was your calling or what do you attribute that to?

“I’ve said to people. if it’s your calling, then you feel comfortable in a way, at least that’s how I would describe it. When I was working in Catholic Social Services, people would often say how can you go into a prison and I said ‘well, it feels just right to me from the beginning.’ But if you wanted to put me in front of a classroom of 1st graders, I would be terrified and yet to other people, it comes easily…Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live in a world where everyone could use their gift and get employed and paid for it? I feel really blessed that happened for me.”

 

Q3 :  Could you describe a moment when you really saw the impact of PAR Recycle Works on someone’s life?

“Just recently, we had a young man who came to us who had a difficult childhood and and was really scared in the beginning. He was quiet and shy but the other men in the group, our Operations Manager, Maurice Jones, and Warehouse Manager, Gerald Williams, who both were formerly incarcerated themselves, took him under their wing. In the beginning, he wasn’t always showing up on time but little by little, you could just see the growth and change in him. He became more animated, enjoying the work more. He just got hired by the scrap company that we regularly do business with; he is the second man to be hired by this company from PAR-Recycles. So, it was just a joy to see the change in him and how good he feels about himself.”

 

Q4 :  What is the greatest lesson that you feel like you have taken away from your work?

“That we’re all alike and all human beings and we all want the same things – we all feel the same things, we all desire to be loved, to be cherished, to be honored, to provide for our families. We’re not different, just because people have made terrible mistakes doesn’t make them different from us. You know, sometimes it’s just circumstances of life – one thing that happens to you, maybe during childhood, that gets you into a certain circumstance that changes your life forever. But underneath all of that, we are all the same. I remember the first time that I was in the prison I saw that they had a beauty parlor and I remember the women were laughing, talking, and getting their hair done by the other women in prison, and I thought ‘oh my gosh, they are just like women everywhere! They’re just women like me and my friends.’ We like to put labels on one another as if we’re a different species or something, but we’re all God’s children.

 

Heather

I had the opportunity to sit down with Heather Rice, Program Coordinator and Executive Assistant at Whosoever Gospel Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides food, shelter, clothing, education, counseling, job training and rehabilitation for men who are in need of assistance or are experiencing homelessness. The New Life Program works in three phases: 1. Foundations Phase, men receive the services listed previously and begin job readiness training by working around the mission, attending chapels and classes, building a resume, engaging in a vocational discovery process and preparing for their job search; 2. Careers Phase, men pursue off-site job training and employment and continue with vocational counseling and financial management assistance that ends in a graduation ceremony after three months of fulltime off-site employment; and 3. Aftercare Phase, men move out into independent living and continue to receive counseling and advice. Heather said that long term programs such as this one allow her and other staff members to really get to know the guys and see every step of their journeys. She is able to see how God restores things in their lives. For instance, a man named Ben visited the site again after graduating from the program. Formerly homeless, Ben’s relationship was now restored with his wife, and they had a car, a home, and a baby. Success stories such as Ben’s help her realize that God’s grace is so big and can extend to everyone.

And this is her story of finding grace and humility in volunteer work…

Heather Rice was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia where she spent a lot of her youth doing community service, specifically at the church near her grandparent’s house. Her first introduction to Whosoever occurred when a girl in her class in high school asked Heather to team up and work at the Mission in the sorting room for their required community service. This led to Heather extending her community service hours past the required amount as she began to find her place of sanity and sense of belonging at Whosoever. After graduating high school, she worked part time during her undergraduate educational years at Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia College of Bible). Bob Emberger, executive director of Whosoever, quickly became her mentor. He began giving her rides home after work and Heather fondly talked about how those 20 minute car rides were like counseling sessions for her.

From these conversations, Heather realized she had a pretty hefty superiority complex that Bob challenged her to push back from. She explained that she had always sought the praise of adults as a means of finding personal significance. She found that volunteering and working hard were good ways to accumulate that praise. Receiving praise fed a self-righteous notion in her that she was somehow better than other people. She served others for her own sake, and not for the sake of those she was helping. Volunteering was about her getting what she felt she needed out of it. The problem was, she wasn’t satisfied. The pressure and need to be good and her arrogance of thinking she was better than others because of her good works were at a boiling point when Bob gave her a book to read called Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges.  It was life giving. The book helped her see that ministry is not rooted in one’s efforts to please God or people. It’s rooted in the fact that Christ has already done it all for us. By God’s grace, we can rest in Him. At the age of 16, Heather had taken on this mature topic of self-righteousness and authentic service and, with the help of her mentor, realized that

“[Her] concept of grace had not been big enough for the sin and darkness in [her] heart.”

This idea was reinforced for her while she continued to work at Whosoever Gospel Mission. She saw the same heart motivations that she possessed in the hearts of the men at Whosoever. Some of the men who had been using or engaging in other illegal activities were trying to earn praise from others – their fathers, family members or friends who also used. It was like living as a salve to the fear of man (the Bible’s way of saying we as humans seek the approval of others rather than the approval of God), rather than living in the freedom that comes of loving people and fearing God. Heather said that it was humbling and freeing to see the parallel of sin between her and the men at Whosoever and allowed her to further connect with the people she was encountering. After coming to grips with some of the depth of sin in her own heart, she can say confidently that if God’s grace is big enough for her, then it’s certainly big enough for any man that’s ever going to come to the mission.

 

She finished her Urban Missions degree and moved on to a master’s program in Counseling at Westminster Seminary, a three year program that she completed in five years. She continued working at Whosoever and found that working at the mission gave her real case studies to which she could apply her graduate work. Currently, Heather is working on her dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry degree which is helping her better connect with the guys at Whosoever. The goal of her project is to help the men at the center rebuild healthy relationships with their children. The process of this project begins with Heather conducting one on one interviews with interested fathers by asking them questions about their children and families and then seeking to identify points of struggle or contention that might hinder healthy relationship building. The next step is to dig into Scripture and unpack a biblical-theological framework of families and fathers to guide the mending and strengthening process as the men work to build their relationships with their kids. She’s found that when you can apply the hope of the gospel to tough situations, the brokenness and barriers of the situations become easier to overcome for the father. The last step is talking through ideas for how to overcome these barriers; for instance, Heather might suggest little changes a man might try – like changing his tone when texting his daughter from one that’s “demanding and ‘me’ centered” to one that is more “her” centered, caring and compassionate. The theory is not to look to be loved and respected by your daughter, but rather, try looking simply to love and respect her.

In regards to stereotypes about people who have experienced homelessness and incarnation that she has seen during her work, Heather said that there are at least two very different groups of people who might create very different stereotypes. First, there are the folks, generally from the middle to upper classes, who think homelessness is a result of laziness, poor choices, or lack of motivation. Second, there are some people actually experiencing these situations who may have their own skewed perspectives on their situations. By this, she’s referring to a victim mentality where the person only focuses on what is being or has been done against them (things they cannot change) rather than the personal decisions, actions and reactions that may have contributed to their situation (the result of personal choices and their consequences). In response to both types of stereotypes, Heather says it’s not so simple.  The struggles of a person experiencing homelessness — and yours and mine for that matter —  are always a mix of several factors.  The good news is that, when the root causes of the problem are identified, the hope of the gospel changes everything. She says there are five reasons why people struggle:

  1. I sin ~ I do what’s wrong, and I suffer the consequences

  2. Others sin against me ~ people hurt us in all kinds of ways when they sin against us in big and little ways (it could be as small as gossip or something bigger like abuse)

  3. We live in a fallen world ~ Ever since sin entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, death came along with it and everything started to unravel – sickness, death, natural disasters, etc.

  4. Sin has become institutionalized ~ There are corrupt systems, like slavery and discriminatory laws, that are broken and encourage oppression that leaves people feeling stuck

  5. Satan seeks to destroy me ~ He exists and works against us in any way he can

 

Heather says that the good news of the Gospel is that God deals with all of these issues at the cross:

“When we identify sin and call it what it is, we can receive God’s forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf on the cross. When others sin against me, I am reminded that I have been forgiven much, and therefore I learn to forgive. When I feel the pain of life in this fallen world, I remember that Jesus declared ‘it is finished!’ and I remember that Satan is defeated and a better day is coming! By God’s grace, we can work to correct injustices. The cross also helps put these struggles into perspective and reminds me that no matter what comes against me, God has gone on record that He is for me! The cross changes everything. It redirects the identify of an individual as a son or daughter of the king, not just someone experiencing homelessness and subjected the mistreatment and neglect that our society unfortunately inflicts on people experiencing homelessness.”

The reality is that it isn’t about blaming one person or one institution, but rather a complex mix of these things that exist in a fallen world. Heather concluded by borrowing a saying from a friend. She shared, it’s about recognizing that,

“Some people are born on third base and wonder why not everyone makes it home as easily as they do.  What they don’t realize is that other people were born on first or second base, or in the bleachers, or maybe not even in the ballpark. Those of us who made it home, it’s our job to go outside the park and help others find their way inside, find their way home.”

 

Cheyenne

“Dear young people, do not bury your talents, the gifts that God has given you! Do not be afraid to dream of great things!” Pope Francis

Cheyenne, an emerging college freshman at Immaculata University, has strong roots in the Germantown community as she attended St. Athanasius Catholic School from first through eighth grade and returned in her high school years as a summer camp counselor and after school program volunteer. Her job at camp begins in the morning with the kid’s breakfast time followed by about a half hour of playtime. Afterwards, there is normally an activity, lunch time, and a movie of the children’s choice. All of the staff members and teachers have been mentors to Cheyenne, including her aunt and grandmother who also works at the school. She highlighted a teacher named Miss Moore who has given her valuable advice as she embarks on a new journey at college at the end of August.

This young leader has learned a great deal from working with kids, but above all, it has taught her patience. She says that all of the kids have different personalities — some are calm while others are more hyper — that she has to sort through and understand in order to be an effective camp counselor.  Cheyenne talked about one student in particular who has made an impression on her, as well as the other staff members. She said that Gabriella is so smart and intelligent, well above her age level. This “little old lady”, according to Cheyenne, has been her greatest instructor in learning patience as Gabriella always reminds Cheyenne to be patient with the other kids and even helps assist some of the other kids during activities.

Outside of volunteering, Cheyenne’s hobbies include watching Grey’s Anatomy and crocheting. Her crocheting skills come from studying Youtube videos and then practicing the designs on her own. She even makes crochet hats for premature babies and sends in crochet squares to Project Chemo Crochet to be made into a blanket for cancer patients. Her future plans include studying biology at Immaculata University in hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon, which she discovered by volunteering and shadowing at CHOP, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Overall, I would say this young lady has a bright and promising future that the community is so proud of!

Harvey

Also known as “Twin” or “Big”, meet Harvey – a 61 year old man from West Philadelphia, whose positive attitude and larger than life personality are infectious. A self-proclaimed “hell of a walker”, Big enjoys strolling around the neighborhoods of Philly and even walking aimlessly for hours at a time. He reads nonfiction books and is especially knowledgeable about the Nazi-Germany period of history. What’s not apparent on the surface is that Harvey had spent half of his life in a state penitentiary before experiencing homelessness after his release from prison. He has been unemployed for 9 years now as his record of incarceration puts him at a disadvantage to be hired by employers.

Harvey resides at the St. Raymond’s House, a permanent housing facility for individuals who are experiencing homelessness and have a chronic health condition. He views the house as a blessing and feels he has been rescued by both St. Raymond’s and by God’s grace. He says this was a miracle because even though he didn’t fit all of the criteria necessary to qualify for housing at St. Raymond’s, DePaul USA still accepted his case and didn’t turn him away. He quotes the Bible to describe the significance of this act of compassion,

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverb 17:17

Once he realized that St. Raymond’s was located in the same neighborhood that he had lived in before being incarcerated, he knew that God had been present in every step of his journey; it seemed like a second chance. Throughout this process, he lost many family members and friends and became estranged with them to the point that he heard from people outside of his family that his young Hollywood actor son, Harvey Silver, had passed away. Along the way, however, he had mentors and community members that helped him reach each next step in his life. For instance, his landlord took a special interest in Harvey and didn’t evict him right away after he had missed several rent payments. She bought him 6 months extra time and still waves to him today when she sees him around town.

People also looked out for Harvey during Code Blue, a period of extreme winter weather conditions when individuals who are homeless are taken from outside and put into shelters. Neighbors would take Big from the porch he slept on and allow him to stay inside their homes until Code Blue passed just so he could avoid the shelter systems. These people who took him in treated him as if they had known Harvey for years and would light up whenever he walked by so much so that some people said he was the mayor of the neighborhood.

When asked what he was most proud of, Harvey said that it was his ability,

“To be able to love life enough to struggle for a better life.”

He fervidly admitted that he could have been alcohol dependent or dead at this point but the fact that he is still alive and still functioning with great health is a testament to his strength and perseverance. Big calls his journey a “growing experience” that has molded and shaped him in a positive rather than a negative way.  He says that his worth outweighs the bitterness so that he is able to adapt and move on.

Harvey is currently writing a book. He feels that he has a calling in life to write and receives signs of this calling by finding pens on the sidewalks outside. He collects these pens as well as little pieces of paper where he writes his thoughts down in the form of inspirational words of wisdom and sayings about life. He says that his son clearly takes after him with the talent of writing and shared a quote his son once said,

“Life is like a thin line; What’s important is how well you stay balanced.”

A main theme of The Faces of Germantown blog is to break down the stigma surrounding people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Therefore, I asked Harvey what were some common misconceptions that people, who have never encountered homelessness or poverty, might have about these two experiences. He said that the two main assumptions are that the person is either addicted to drugs or a “nut”. However, after my interview with Harvey, I am starting to realize that the truth is not so black and white; there are dozens of reasons why people end up on the streets or in a shelter system. Life is complicated and people are complicated and as Harvey says,

“Nobody under the sun knows when they’re going to face hard times. Like a fish in a net, you never know when you might face adversity.”

Harvey's Writings

Excerpts from Harvey’s Writings…

“The need of one may be more important than the need of many.”

 

“Don’t give in to adversity, find and gather strength and persevere through it.”

 

“Sometimes it seems we have done the wrong thing. However, sometimes it is done for the right reason.”

 

“Death is certain. Life is not.”

 

“Growing plants are a good example. Nothing will stop them from growing out of the ground which it came.”

 

“Been down many times, but not out.”

 

“If ‘love’ is a feeling, then there should be no declaration to love one another forever. Because feelings come and go.”

Art in the Form of Simplicity

On May 22nd 2017, I went with Darcy, one of Vincent DePaul Young Adult Center’s directors, to DePaul USA, a nonprofit organization that helps men, who had previously experienced incarceration or homelessness, transition into new lives by offering them job and life skill training sessions. At the center located on Sprague Street, I assisted Darcy in conducting her monthly art club session where those receiving services from the organization can engage in recreational activities that serve as creative outlets. The theme of that day was in honor of National Postcard Month, where participants could create watercolor notecards and mail them to friends or family members with a stamp. Two men joined us in this art and craft project and even though actual postcards were not created during this session, the men’s mindless painting while chatting with Darcy and I turned into art anyway. Through our conversations, it became apparent that simply being able to talk and laugh with other people brightened not only the men’s days, but also our own. And maybe that’s what really counted during our art club session: the importance of the simple joy in human interactions.

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