West Philadelphia park event celebrates back to school

Felton Hazell, 51, takes in the Peace N Philly rally organized by Nehemiah Davis in West Philadelphia.
Felton Hazell, 51, takes in the Peace N Philly rally organized by Nehemiah Davis in West Philadelphia. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: August 21, 2012

It was a Sunday in the park for children in West Philadelphia, a day of free cotton candy, popcorn, hot dogs, and pony rides.

Five barbers gave dozens of boys free haircuts, and the girls got complimentary manicures and jewelry-making lessons to craft their own bracelets.

About 300 youngsters who came to Malcolm X Park at 51st and Pine Streets received complimentary school backpacks filled with notebooks, pencils, glue sticks, folders, and paints - everything they might need for the first day of classes.

The outpouring of community spirit was the work of a young entrepreneur, Nehemiah Davis, 25, who for three summers has hosted a back-to-school celebration, giving away book bags and school supplies to youths in West Philadelphia.

Hundreds of children and families were there, and dozens of others donated time and services. The backpacks, and all of the items in them, were provided by individual donors.

Two years ago, Davis created a nonprofit organization bearing his name. His efforts began in 2008, when he and his family began feeding the homeless in Philadelphia. "We continued to build from there," he said.

Every Monday, Davis, his mother, grandmother, and twin sisters, 13, hand out meals to homeless men and women at 18th and Vine Streets, across from Philadelphia Family Court.

"Last week, we barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers," said Davis' mother, Myra Grant. "I made a tuna fish and macaroni salad. One of our volunteers brought pizza, and another volunteer brought homemade lemonade."

To pay for the food, Davis uses some proceeds from his businesses: a T-shirt company and a junk-removal firm.

He also gets a lot of donations. "Sometimes, people say, 'Hey, I want to buy the pizza this week.' And we allow that."

The back-to-school extravaganza was just one of several that Davis' foundation sponsors.

Each December, there's a Christmas party with toys for the children at a recreation center in his Overbrook neighborhood. At Thanksgiving, he and volunteers serve a holiday dinner to 200 homeless people from around the city, and at Easter, there is an egg hunt.

Last winter, Davis and his helpers took 50 inner-city youths on a ski trip to Spring Mountain, Pa.

"It's something that's definitely needed for the community," said Janelle Williams of Wynnefield, who brought her two nephews. She said Davis was a role model who is giving back to the community he came from.

"There are a lot of things going on in Philadelphia that are not pleasant," she said. "He's trying to highlight something that is more positive. The children see that maybe they can grow up and do something like this. That's the overall theme: Help yourself, and then you'll be able to help others."

Davis' T-shirt company is named NeoDaviso - short for his name, Nehemiah Davis.

The "Peace N Philly" line carries messages that promote motivation and success. Some shirts say, "Success comes in cans, NOT can't." Others say, "Dream It, Build It, Live it" and "Young Mogul in the Making." The shirts sell for $25. Davis estimated he had given away "well over 100" and sold many more.

At a Peace N Philly rally in LOVE Park last month, 300 to 500 people turned out, and many bought the shirts, he said.

Rachel Still and Lydia Dunlap, owners of an entertainment-management firm in Camden, donated 170 of the backpacks, with supplies included, that were handed out Sunday.

"We care about the community, and we want to stop the violence," said Dunlap, who was at the park Sunday. "The one thing that kids need is an education."

"It is our first year doing this with Nehemiah," Still said. "Absolutely, we would do it again."

Philadelphia Police Officer Willie Roundtree, of the 22d District at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue, said he partnered with Davis to sponsor Sunday's Peace N Philly event, with the goal of reducing violence in the city. An off-duty colleague of Roundtree's at the 22d, Officer Moses Walker Jr., was shot to death early Saturday in North Philadelphia in what police believe was an attempted robbery.

"It's a very important message because the kids are basically killing each other," Roundtree said. "We want to give them something positive, where they can come out and have fun - and there's no violence."

Philadelphia disc jockey Mike Lowry provided the music at Sunday's party. "I've known Nehemiah for a little while, and I like that he is using his influence in the city, and as a young man, to make a positive change. He's just a really a positive guy, and I wanted to be a part of it."

Kellie Brown, who has her own jewelry line, came to do "free inspirational bracelet-making with the kids to get them ready for school," she said.

"Whatever their goal is in school, the bracelets can have different meanings, and they get to make them."


Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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