Building something from nothing in North Philly

Meghan Musselman is a member of a group of Temple Medical School students who volunteer as tutors for kids enrolled in HERO. (Valerie Russ/Staff)
Meghan Musselman is a member of a group of Temple Medical School students who volunteer as tutors for kids enrolled in HERO. (Valerie Russ/Staff)
Posted: November 27, 2012

TO TIM GREENE, the story of HERO, a community center operating out of an abandoned supermarket in North Philadelphia, is the kind of "Philadelphia story" that should be told worldwide.

Greene, born at 32nd and Diamond streets and reared in Oak Lane, said his documentary about HERO, which stands for Helping Energize and Rebuild Ourselves, is expected to be released early next year. He has titled it "From Tragedy to Triumph," because the community group took the vacant, unused supermarket and turned it into a hub in the neighborhood around 17th and Tioga streets.

"This is a story of self-empowerment," said Greene, who was a youth tennis star and later worked as an actor and radio personality in Los Angeles after earning a business degree. "The people in the neighborhood keep that place clean. It's immaculate. These are regular neighborhood people painting the benches outside and waxing the floors."

HERO was founded in 1994 by former social worker Elaine Wallace. The group bought the building in 1996 "for next to nothing," said executive director Doris Phillips.

"It was abandoned for 15 years before we got it, and everything was left in it," she said. "The food was dry-rotted. Canned goods were stacked from top to bottom. There were shelves full of food - what the mice didn't eat."

Greene said he was struck by how Phillips simply knocked on doors and asked community members to help fix up the 8,000-square foot building.

Phillips, Wallace, and HERO board president Joel Spivak went to Youth Build and to the Orleans Technical Trade School to ask students to help rebuild the center. They also enlisted volunteers from the drug-rehab program One Day At a Time.

"At the trade school, the students used to build a wall, do the framing, drywall it and then tear it down," said Spivak, an architect. "I went there and asked them, 'How about letting the students build a community center, and they will have some pride in building something that will have a future?' "

Spivak said Phillips went to Home Depot and convinced the store to donate materials.

Now, on weekday afternoons, the 8,000-square-foot community center provides free after-school activities for children, including help with homework from volunteers or community workers.

Some are students from Temple University School of Medicine, others are paid a small stipend through the National Caucus & Center on Black Aged, and others are volunteers from the Double Lyte Posse Sportbike Motorcycle Club.

Mike Monroe, vice president of the club, said the men wanted to mentor children.

"Kids need some kind of outlet, and they need someone to show them that there's a life outside of what they might be used to," he said.

Monroe, who is retired from the Army, said most of the club members are police officers, corrections officers, firefighters, SEPTA workers or contractors.

"We try to encourage them and tell them we have their backs if they need us," said Monroe, 46.

Last week, about 20 to 30 children sat at round tables in one of the banquet rooms that used as an after-school tutoring club.

When they finished their homework, some children rushed to play games in the computer lab.

Greene, who says his goal is to make "Disney-like movies for urban kids" (check out his work at TimGreenefilms.com), learned about the community center when he was working as a DJ at a party in HERO's building.

"If people can see what she did, they will say, 'We can do this too,' " he said of Phillips. "She's not complaining that the government isn't doing anything for them."

Phillips said she is excited that Greene has been filming the documentary about the program.

"It needs exposure," she said. "Other people need to know that it can be done. Things can happen with nothing. We didn't have any money, and we made it happen."

" @ValerieRussDN

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