Mantua: ‘If you don’t live here you ain’t going to put all your heart into it;’ the Impact of a Community Center

Fred Stokes sits in front of the Caring People Alliance West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club where he used to run an evening program. (Alesia Bani/PN)

Fred Stokes, 70, was born in Mantua and returned to the West Philadelphia community to purchase his childhood home. Stokes credits much of who he is to “35th and Haverford,” the site of the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club

The center was expanded and reconstructed in 1986, but Stokes remembers when it was only a three-story building when he was a child.

“That West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club did so much when we were little,” Stokes said. “And we didn’t have a lot, but we knew we always had a comfort zone up there. You couldn’t wait to go do your homework up there.”

Known by some as the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club, the West Philadelphia Community Center, or simply “the club,” the Caring People Alliance West Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club has been a space to serve residents in the Mantua area for many years.

The Caring People Alliance (CPA), a nonprofit organization working to reduce poverty and injustice through services for children and youth development, operates the Boys & Girls Clubs in Philadelphia. CPA was granted a charter for the first Philadelphia chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in 1937 and now runs three facilities across the city, including the West Philadelphia club.  

Over time, the club in West Philadelphia developed into a family-focused community center. Many in the community remember what the center was like before this transformation, and are interested in programming for the teenage aged population, which the Caring People Alliance West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club is working to develop. 

The original building of the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club in the ‘80s. (Courtesy Fred Stokes)

The CPA plans to move the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club from its well-known “35th and Haverford” address to a new location in Cobbs Creek in July.

In addition to a career in basketball, Stokes has worked at IBM, in recreation, and taught at Overbrook High School. But it’s his time serving as the director of the West Philly Boys & Girls Club evening program he recounts with great fondness. 

“I always said, who’s best to serve than the one that’s been here,” Stokes said.

Beyond the recreational and physical component of the evening program, Stokes had 14 tutors to help with schoolwork, what he describes as one of the “best programs in the country.”

“If you didn’t have good grades you couldn’t come to the community center in the evening,” he said. “It was run like a community center was supposed to be. It was a family atmosphere.”

Stokes said  when he left his position after four years in the ‘90s, the program geared for teenagers ended, and the building was “stripped like bacon.”

“They took the weight room out, they took the kids’ pool tables and stuff out, and then it was turned into a community center for older folks, which there’s nothing wrong with that, and a day care,” Stokes said. “But the population you need to work with is the teenagers. So what happens to them? They have no place to go.”

The club previously offered a day care but 10 years ago CPA partnered with the School District of Philadelphia to develop a preschool program and now runs three programs for children 3 to 5 years old: Pre-K Counts, Head Start, and PHLpreK also known as universal pre-K. There is also an after-school program for 5- to 13-year-olds.

Inside the Caring People Alliance West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club, parents come to pick their children up from the preschool program from 2:30 to 3 p.m. (Alesia Bani/PN)

The evening program Stokes formerly ran was shut down because funding streams for the program were no longer available, according to Branon Gilmore, the senior director of community outreach at CPA. Another variation of the program was created with a grant through the City of Philadelphia, but participation declined after the City took away the financial incentive component to pay teens because many left to find after-school jobs.

“It was hard to recruit teens with after-school activities and sports, and then working, and we no longer applied for that grant,” Gilmore said. 

Brandon Harris Senior, 39, used to go to the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club to swim, play basketball, and do homework. Harris thinks programs centered around teens are crucial in the neighborhood and should include life preparation skills such as financial literacy classes, not just having spaces to engage in recreational activities.

“It’s easier to raise strong children than it is to rebuild damaged teens,” Senior said.

Stokes believes an issue in the neighborhood is reaching the teenage population.

“You can send them down the street to play basketball when the gyms open but what happens to the other part — the tutoring, the homework,” he wondered. “Things that they need like counselors saying, ‘How was your day-to-day in school?’”

CPA is in the process of reviving a program geared toward teenagers at the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club. The center has applied for a grant through the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nonprofit that creates education and employment opportunities for youth and young adults, to create a program during the school year which will bring back a financial incentive.

“The grant will focus on job readiness skills for the future, mentoring and there is actually an incentive piece which will help us attract teens and retain them so we’re very excited and looking forward to that,” Gilmore said.  

CPA has also applied for another grant, which if awarded, will extend evening hours at its North Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club location, the R.W. Brown Community Center, which currently has programming for children up to age 18. 

“Of course anything we do at one center, once we find additional funding, we replicate at our other centers,” Gilmore said.

The North Philadelphia center is the “flagship Boys & Girls Club,” Gilmore said. The teenagers at the center have a weekly podcast they produce, access to a recording studio, 3D printers to create art to sell, and a T-shirt printing press. 

“They do a lot and we hope to replicate that with our other centers,” Gilmore added.

Although the West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club will relocate to Cobbs Creek in July, it wants Mantua residents to know there are many job opportunities for adults in the community, Gilmore said.

“We have jobs where people can come to work and there’s a place for your child to come,” Gilmore said. “So you can come to work with your child and we have high-quality programming. It’s a friendly place to work at and we strive to be inclusive of everyone.”

Fred Stokes walks his daughter’s dog past the Caring People Alliance West Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club every day. (Alesia Bani/PN)

Stokes also thinks it is important to hire people who live in the neighborhood to facilitate programs.

“If you don’t live here you ain’t going to put all your heart into it,” he said.

Which is the reason he returned to the neighborhood he was born and raised in.

“When I walk past that building I want to cry because that would have never happened had I not left,” Stokes said. “But I was working three jobs and I had a family to raise. But I did it because I was from this community and that makes a difference.”

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