Every day, shortly after 3 p.m., students from the nearby Strawberry Mansion High School, the Leslie P. Hill Elementary School, the Richard R. Wright Elementary School and other education facilities trickle into the Strawberry Mansion Community Learning Center.
Kevin Upshur runs the learning center which opened seven years ago.
Inside what was once a bar is now a small, one-floor center with over a dozen computers, a projector screen and plenty of books and magazines. A couch and two chairs take up the entry way, along with two book shelves that nearly reach the ceiling. In the back of Upshur’s center are roughly a dozen boxes of candy bars. Students have been selling the candy to raise funds for this center.
It is a small operation. Upshur has done the best he can.
“I think it was a good idea, because if he never opened it then all the kids would not be smart,” Nijaa Thomas said. A 10th-grade student at Strawberry Mansion High and Upshur’s niece, Thomas said, “When you come in here you’re supposed to do your homework, put all your books out and do your homework.”
The center is open Monday through Thursday and sometimes for a few hours on the weekends. Upshur said his center also function for children that need a “safe haven.”
While Upshur said he’s tired at times—working at nights to make a living—he acknowledged that running the center is about more than himself.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the children,” Upshur said. “If it was about me I would’ve just put apartments in here. But it’s bigger than me.”
When it’s time for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments testing some of the students don’t have homework. When they don’t have school work they play educational games they know are on the computers. The others that don’t have the standardized tests get their homework done.
“The reading is a little bit hard. But the math, easy,” nine-year-old Fatimah Rice said of the PSSAs.
Some of the games students attending the center are allowed to play are on websites like coolmath.com
“I come here and do my homework and go on the computer and eat,” Jameer Rice, Fatimah’s twin brother, said of his typically day at the learning center.
Upshur may welcome anywhere from 12 to 16 students on any given day. One high-point of the week at the center is the pizza provided for students to eat on Thursdays.
Some days students from Temple University or Villanova University come to volunteer and tutor. One of Upshur’s favorite tutors developed a close bond with one of the young girls but that college student is studying in Europe during the spring. Upshur said this pair has plans to reunite when the tutor returns to the states.
“The college kids have been great,” Upshur said.
But while he always welcomes the help, Upshur said he can’t help but notice that more often than not assistance doesn’t come from residents of the surrounding neighborhood. Outsiders are his main volunteers. Too often community members have complained about the problems caused by some troubled youth, but they haven’t helped with solving the problems they complain about, Upshur said.
“A lot of people don’t see the value in investing in children,” Upshur said. “If they can’t make money off the kid for whatever they’re doing they don’t want to be bothered.”
The learning center does more than provide children a place to do their homework, though. Upshur has funded trips for students to other parts of the city in the past. Additionally, students have even gone as far as Harrisburg and New York City.
The Rice twins enjoyed visiting Pennsylvania’s Capitol Building in Harrisburg.
“We ate. We saw different things and looked at people’s offices,” Jameer Rice said. “We saw this big old building, inside of it and it’s where they make decisions.”
One of the children at the center ran the Broad Street Run with Upshur last year. That student never saw so many people before.
“We finished the same time, an hour and 34 minutes,” Upshur said with a chuckle. “And you know what he said? He saw them people, man, there’s 40,000 people out there. He said, ‘Damn, look at all these people.’ He was hyped up, man.”
Upshur said he hopes to expand the facility and has looked into building a kitchen to provide food service and teach the children cooking skills. He has brought in guest speakers.
“One of the goals is to make it more of a cultural learning center where you can have people come in and speak to the kids,” Upshur said. “We want to make it more of a platform for people to come with positive information to teach the kids different things.”
The learning center recently partnered with Starbucks. The café giant donated some of the furniture that occupies the entrance of the center. Upshur said he planned to take the children, as part of the partnership, to clean up some of the streets in the neighborhood. He said he wants them to be active members of their community, create change and a better future for themselves.
“We try to instill that in all the kids, how important it is to control the community, to take pride in the community,” Upshur said.
He said he has seen some promise in some of his older volunteers, who once used the space like Jameer and Fatimah Rice. Upshur said he hoped to get them on the center’s board so they can provide fresh ideas and new life.
Upshur typically closes the learning center around 6 p.m. depending on the day, how tired he us or how much work the children have. He works at night.
“I’m going to stand up until I can’t stand no more,” Upshur said.