Several years ago, John Kerwood was struck with a chemical imbalance that stripped him of his job as a mailman and left him battling clinical depression. But now, with the help of the North Light Community Center in Manayunk, Kerwood is recovering.
“I’ve lived independently now for nine years, partly because of this program,” Kerwood said.
Things are not easy for Kerwood. He still deals with his illness and lives off of a combination of food stamps and government assistance for the elderly and disabled known as Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. But with North Light’s help, things are not impossible. His food stamp aid comes in the middle of each month, so the non-perishable foods and, every once in a while, supermarket gift cards that North Light provides are essential.
“I need sustenance. And I love being alive, and they help me stay alive,” Kerwood said.
The center is on Green Lane in Manayunk, just off of Main Street, though it may seem a world apart from the nice restaurants and clothing stores doing business just a few minutes away.
“I think there’s a perception, especially about Manayunk, that it’s a rich community,” said Lila Bricklin, the director of development at North Light. The bike race and gentrification process that revitalized the community and produced a vibrant business district may mask issues like hunger, poverty and unemployment. But it does not make them simply go away.
“If people would just walk one block off of Main Street and up the hill, they would really see the real Manayunk. They would see people who don’t have enough money to feed their families,” Bricklin said. People like Gary Devlin.
Money has been tight around the house since Devlin lost his job. He has had to cut from his budget things many other people take for granted, like a cell phone. And one of his daughters, formerly a Millersville University student, recently had to return home to finish her education at community college.
But the Roxborough man has found a little bit of help from a community center that he has known all his life.
“I used to come to North Light when I was a child. I used to play ball here, I coached here,” Devlin said. And now, he finds food here, and a little peace of mind too.
The North Light Community Center gives Devlin a place to go, he said. Sometimes, he might pick up a book to read or simply swing by the center in the evenings to give himself something to do. And since he took in his nephew several months ago, North Light has helped the young boy keep out of trouble.
“Place like North Light give him a place to go in the evenings,” Devlin said.
Still, the past few years have been difficult ones for both North Light’s clients as well as the organization itself. The numbers of people North Light assists and how frequently have soared since the recession began, an increase of nearly 200 percent. Last year, North Light provided food for 895 people.
At the same time, both private sector and government funding have dried up, forcing North Light to lay off staff and make painful cuts in various programs in order to fill their budget gaps. But there is only so much productivity that can be wrung out of current workers. “Staff is worked out to the max, and also working at 150 percent,” Bricklin said.
And sometimes funding for certain projects has to take a back seat to making sure they have the manpower to carry them out. In 2009, for instance, North Light hired Stephen Walsh to coordinate its “Friends in Supplying Help,” or FISH, food cupboard. But doing so meant diverting a $20,000 grant that were supposed to go toward buying a van for transporting children.
Bricklin generally finds that running the FISH food cupboard is, financially speaking, a little bit easier than some of the other services they offer. Other organizations, like churches and also Villanova University, run food drives and help donate non-perishable goods.
But then there’s aid for utility bills, which Bricklin explains North Light just can’t afford to continue next year unless they receive some large donations.
And there are issues with its child care programs as well. As a licensed child care facility, families are can apply for state subsidies to help them send their children to North Light. But while families wait to be approved, North Light eats the additional cost. And, as with most other fiscal issues facing North Light, this too was exacerbated by the recession.
Despite the difficulties, North Light strives to keep its doors open to anyone in need. It is a service that Kerwood and Devlin find indispensable. “I can’t really put it into words. My wife sent them a card over the holidays to really express what we felt and what they had done for us,” Devlin said.