When some teens at the Allegheny West Foundation’s after-school program were sent texts encouraging them to attend the recent flash mobs in Center City, they ignored them altogether and stayed in the center, reading and socializing. Jacques Louis, child development director of the program, located at the Panati Recreation Center at 22nd and Clearfield streets, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you’re out on the street from four to 10, you can’t avoid trouble. A shouting match turns into a fist fight, a fist fight turns into a gun shot,” said Louis, who has worked in non-profit organizations like this one for 17 years.
Unfortunately, the AWF, along with other organizations operating after-school programs in North Philadelphia, may not be able to offer havens like this for much longer. Louis estimated that his program receives “easily 50 percent less funding than in past years.”
Aside from the city’s publicized cuts in after-school programs, the AWF has also lost funding from some of its original supporters. TastyKake, which used to operate a factory in the neighborhood, was a founding partner of the AWF. The factory’s recent move out of the neighborhood, however, has reduced that funding drastically, and Louis expects it to be gone altogether soon.
Not far away, at 1939 W. Venango St. in Nicetown, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries of Philadelphia is feeling similar financial pressures. While both organizations receive federal grants, money from the city and state is quickly disappearing. The federal grants, too, are an uncertainty, as the groups are up for renewal in the coming year.
For the past three years, Mercy’s Executive Director Sister Ann Provost has been applying for a grant from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. Each time, her request has been denied. “Part of the difficulty is that we’re often overlooked because we’re small,” Provost said. “We service a large number of people, but at one site.”
This is not to say that government has completely ignored the folks at Mercy. Provost said that some representatives, including State Senator Shirley Kitchen, have been “very responsive” when Mercy has contacted them. “Does that translate into funding, though? Not really,” Provost said.
In an area where 75 percent of children live in single parent or unmarried households and 56 percent of residents never
graduated from high school, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the importance of after-school programs for children is hardly up for debate.
All of these after-school leaders echoed the notion that a child needs several “anchors” to stay on the path to high-school graduation. At the very least this means a good home, a functional school, and an after-school program.
Barbara Coleman, the director of childcare programs at Mercy, said that these issues reach out beyond Mercy’s walls, though, encompassing the entire neighborhood. “I’d definitely like to see more parks, recreation centers, places for kids,” Coleman said. She pointed out that there is only one park in the neighborhood, Jerome Brown Park, located at 20th and Tioga streets. Last week, when the weather was warm and sunny, Coleman said that the playground was so crowded that there was nowhere for her children to play, and she said she often has to go outside of the city to find recreation options for her children.“Parents and kids want to stay here. I think the government needs to invest more in the community.”
Coleman suggested the abandoned factories and vacant lots that are so prevalent in the area as possible sites to renovate and turn into positive places for the neighborhood. “If we want to make the area more family-centered, we need to get rid of the negatives and give people good reason to live here,” she said.
The story of Mercy’s construction is in fact quite impressive, and one would think that it would draw more attention from the government and the press. Mercy bought the building in 2004 and converted it into a “green” building, one of 24 in Philadelphia and one of only nine to receive the silver-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certification.
When the center invited Mayor Nutter and several other government officials to its grand opening last year, however, none attended, according to Director of Development and Public Relations Denise Hay.
Provost also chalked up some of the difficulties in getting funding to old-fashioned politics. “The government wants the most influence for the money,” she said, adding that many government officials have yet to stop by to see the building for themselves. “They only show up when it’s time to vote,” she said.
Over at Panati, Louis is something of a one-man idea factory, brimming with excited new plans of how he wants to expand the center’s reach. His ideas include working with Temple University’s journalism program to help his kids with the AWF Newsletter and starting a bed and breakfast at the center, run partially by the children, which could make it self-sustainable and introduce the kids to possible careers in hospitality.
Without funding to kick-start these programs, though, Louis’ plans, just like Mercy’s wish to expand their adult-education program, will likely not materialize. Louis said that some of the cuts were expected when Mayor Nutter—known as “Mayor Cutter” by many in the area—was elected to office. When the economy took a turn for the worse, though, Louis said, is when the cuts became a grim reality.
Along with half of his staff, Louis had to cut the art programs offered on Tuesdays and all weekend programs. Recently, the center purchased Kindle devices to make reading more “cool,” but the cuts forced Louis to cancel most of the subscriptions.
Louis called for a different model of funds distribution instead of constantly looking for what he calls “the easy cut.” “Some money just can’t get cut,” he said. “If I had to shout out something to Nutter, it would be, first, stop with the cuts. How are you supposed to inspire young people if they’re not here?
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