It’s three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, and the front door buzzer at the HERO Community Center is ringing off the hook. Celia Floyd, the assistant director of the center’s after-school program, is posted at the front desk letting in groups of neighborhood children, most of whom walked straight from school. The children greet
Floyd with wide, beaming smiles, calling her either “Mrs. C” or “Grandma.” Floyd smiles and says hello back as the children shuffle into a room lined with tables and chairs to get a start on their homework
HERO, located at 3439 N. 17th St. in Nicetown, was founded in 1994 by neighborhood resident Elaine Wallace and operated out of a variety of smaller sites until acquiring its current home, an 8,000-square-foot-former supermarket that had been abandoned for close to 10 years. Volunteers from the area, including some from local halfway houses, took up the daunting task of clearing out the building, which was still full of items from the supermarket.
“It was really a job,” said Doris Phillips, HERO’s executive director. Workers from YouthBuild, carpentry students from Orleans Trade School and several other local volunteers then helped renovate the building, using supplies donated from The Home Depot and other stores.
The letters in “HERO” stand for “Helping Energize and Rebuild Ourselves,” and the organization is geared toward families, especially those headed by single mothers with three or more children. It’s open to everyone, but Phillips encourages patrons to volunteer as well. “If we help them,” Phillips said, “we want them to help us.”
Volunteers at HERO come from all over the place. Rhonda Stratton, a student at
Community College of Philadelphia, started tutoring children during the after-school program in January. She chose HERO because she wanted to help children with problems at home, and has found her time spent at HERO thus far “very rewarding.” HERO also receives senior citizen volunteers, referred to the center by the National Black Caucus.
The first matter of business for the children upon arrival is homework, which is completed with the help of volunteer tutors. “I don’t care what they do, as long as they finish their homework first,” said Floyd. After that, children are free to choose from a variety of activities. Some stay in the homework room and play checkers, Sorry!, and other board games, while the rest play educational games on the ten personal computers, donated by Congressman Chaka Fattah. “They love computers,” said Marlene Glass, an after-school aide. “That’s what they do most, better than anything else.”
After an hour or so of playtime, the children return to the homework room for a boxed snack, donated daily by the archdiocese of Philadelphia. The snacks are always well-balanced, and today’s menu consists of chocolate milk, juice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sunflower seeds and apples. Once they are finished with their snacks, the children go their own ways. Only a handful of children are picked up by their parents, Floyd said. Most walk home.
The after-school program is far from the only service HERO offers. The center holds a summer camp, offering arts and crafts and trips to museums and the zoo. In 2006, HERO took children on college tours to West Chester, Lincoln and Cheyney Universities. The center isn’t just for children, either. Throughout the year, HERO holds a variety of events for people of all ages, including holiday parties, fish fries and even a “senior prom” for senior citizens, complete with the naming of a king and queen.
The facility is even rented out for private parties and events, but Floyd said they do this “just to keep the lights on.”
Finding the financial means to keep the center open has been HERO’s greatest challenge. As a non-profit organization, HERO has subsisted on generous donations from a variety of local agencies and donors, including Fattah, State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, and State Rep. Jewell Williams. “They know that there’s a need in the community, and they don’t mind helping us to stay alive,” Phillips said. Still, the center is constantly writing grant proposals, hoping for the money needed to keep up the programs offered.
Finding a way to keep HERO’s doors open is a matter of extreme importance to people in the community. “It’s vital,” Floyd said of the center. “I’ve had kids tell me, ‘You have to help me. When I go home, I have no one to help me.'” HERO is such a haven to the children that during the recent snowstorms, Phillips said, the kids wanted to stay the whole time.
Financial issues aside, the workers at HERO continue to plan for the future. Phillips says she would like to direct more attention to getting high school dropouts back in school. When asked where she saw HERO in five years, Phillips immediately responded that she wants five more locations in North Philadelphia. It’s impressive in such trying economic times that Phillips, a self-described “hustler,” has been able to keep the center funded and steadily expanding at all. There are surely a lot of children, parents and happy volunteers that want to see HERO continue this success into the new decade.
Those interested in volunteering at HERO should contact Doris Phillips at 215-223-5881 or visit the HERO Web site here.