On Feb. 22, 2022, Eugene “Buddah” Thomas blew out the candles on his birthday cake surrounded by the young adults he mentors and the community leaders that support him.
Thomas is the founder and president of Power Circle Mentoring, a program that helps youth ages 11-19 gain the life skills they need to accomplish their dreams. He founded the program in 2015. Based in Frankford, Power Circle aims to provide opportunities for creativity, growth, and connection to keep neighborhood kids off the streets.
Thomas grew up in Frankford and was inspired to form Power Circle after a friend of his was shot and killed in front of Thomas at a bar when he was 19.
“Going through that was very traumatizing to me even still to this day,” Thomas said. “That definitely changed my mindset. I had lost more people before, young kids I grew up with in the streets, but that actually happened right next to me.”
Before cake, Thomas went around and asked the teenagers in attendance to share their biggest take-away from their time at Power Circle so far. Decorated with gold balloons and 22s, even on his birthday Thomas found a way to celebrate others.
Around the same time he lost his friend, Thomas had a few drug cases he was battling in court which he wound up serving just under a year in jail for. When Thomas got out he knew he did not want to go back to the streets but found it challenging to get a job due to his record.
Instead, he began volunteering around the neighborhood with organizations such as The Frankford Community Development Corporation, which aims to empower residents through job creation, affordable housing, and community health and wellness.
Thomas also began volunteering to help coach football for the team he played for at Frankford High School. During his time coaching he began to notice the need for an after-school program that would help kids stay out of trouble and learn valuable life skills that weren’t being taught in the classroom.
After his proposal initially got rejected by Frankford High School, Thomas and a group of seven kids began to have Power Circle meetings at the Northeast Frankford Boys and Girls Club.
“[We] wanted to create a brand around it so that we could have something in Frankford to call our own and shed some light on Frankford, that was the whole plan behind it,” Thomas said.
Derrick Ellerson was a part of the first group to attend Power Circle. Ellerson was on the Frankford High School football team and began attending meetings with his teammates when he was about 16.
Thomas helped Ellerson get his first job working at a supermarket when he was in high school. It was also through Power Circle that Ellerson and his teammates found an outlet to discuss what was going on in their households or on their block and receive support, Ellerson said.
“We call Eugene the Mayor of Frankford,” Ellerson said. “He’s the heart piece of it. He tries to bring everybody together, he tries to solve all problems, and make sure everybody is good. Say if somebody was going through something in their household or on their block or something like that, that was our outlet. We would go there and everything would fall in line until it was time to go back to our regular lives.”
Ellerson currently is attending Lincoln University and is playing football, though he makes an effort to go back to Power Circle from time to time.
Power Circle has since grown to offer programs such as resume workshops, block cleanup events, and meetups every Tuesday where teenagers can enjoy a meal and receive leadership skills, hear from a guest speaker, and connect with each other.
Thomas’s first priority has always been to meet the needs of the community and give the kids in Frankford a voice, he said. He is also dedicated to connecting kids with the resources around Philadelphia to get the help they need.
“A lot of times kids might not have a social security card,” Thomas said. “They don’t have access to get one or don’t even know the way to get it. That can discourage them from getting a job and they can turn to the streets just because of that one piece of paperwork. So we are just kind of the connection, the glue, to provide those services.”
Power Circle has helped about 700 kids through their weekly classes, which focus on networking and creating opportunities for positive advancement, since they started in 2015, Thomas said. They also have helped kids through summer programs, job assistance, and pop-up events around the neighborhood such as block clean ups.
Thomas is hoping that through partnering with local schools Power Circle will be able to extend its reach. While Power Circle has always been involved in the local schools, during the pandemic when many recreation centers and after-school programs were shut down Thomas brought the Power Circle curriculum into schools around four times a week.
Thomas has brought the material from his weekly classes to schools in the area as well as career days, guest speakers, and entrepreneur workshops.
Power Circle is also deeply connected to other organizations in the Frankford neighborhood who are also committed to providing children with the tools to achieve their goals and break the cycle of gun violence.
Angenique Howard formed her nonprofit Unique Dreams in 2019. Howard works to provide mentorship opportunities, education about financial literacy, after school programs, and therapeutic services to impoverished communities.
Unique Dreams also hosts meetings at The Garsed Center, a nonprofit community space where community organizations frequently meet. Howard is also committed to helping children in the neighborhood access the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.
Howard admires the special connection that Thomas has not only with the kids, but with the Frankford community, she said. Many of the kids in the program can relate to Thomas since they come from similar backgrounds, Howard said.
“They need that parent figure, you know, even if it’s like a big brother, just somebody that they can confide in, somebody that they can trust and go to if something is being he makes himself very accessible to the kids,” Howard said.
Community-based violence intervention efforts such as Power Circle have been identified as an important tool in helping reduce gun violence, according to The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, a nonprofit that seeks to find and implement solutions to gun violence.
In 2021, there were 1,834 nonfatal and 498 fatal shooting victims in Philadelphia. 213 of those victims were under the age of 18, according to the Office of the City Controller’s Interactive: Mapping Gun Violence Philadelphia’s Gun Violence Crisis.
Nafisah Ali Lewis, vice president of Power Circle, hopes that by giving kids the tools to succeed and teaching them to respect themselves and others they will choose an alternative path.
“We come from the same neighborhood that they come from, we’ve been down the same roads that they’ve been down,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to give back and save as many kids as we can save because you know, we’re not going to save them all.”
Thomas hopes that by exposing kids to new experiences and diverse walks of life he can encourage them to pursue their dreams whether it be finding a job or applying to college.
While Thomas stresses individual responsibility, discipline, and decision making he also emphasizes the importance of caring for one another. Through team building exercises and the tight-knit community he has created it is clear that family is at the heart of Power Circle.
“We can come together,” Thomas said. “It’s not about race, it’s not about religion, it’s not about none of that. At the end of the day we’re all probably more powerful together.”
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