Bridging the gap for needy youths in teen's memory

Karen and Andy Hicks among photos of family and children their foundation has helped.
Karen and Andy Hicks among photos of family and children their foundation has helped. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 25, 2013

Volunteering at a summer church camp for needy children in Chester was an eye-opener for Andrew Hicks, whose comfortable life as a West Chester high school student centered on sports, family, and friends.

"It changed his heart," said his mother, Karen.

He would come back from Chester fired up about social justice and wondering why more couldn't be done to help the youngsters he taught to swim.

But Andrew, who loved soccer, hockey, and the TV show Entourage, never got that chance. During a family vacation to California in July 2010, the 17-year-old accidentally fell 400 feet down a coastal cliff and died.

"Hicks," as friends called him, was going into his senior year at Henderson High School, where he was a varsity athlete and honor student whose favorite word was respect, recalled his mother.

As his grief-stricken parents and three siblings sat in a San Francisco hotel room waiting for doctors to perform an autopsy and release Andrew's body, they talked about the things he would never get to do, including helping the Chester youngsters who stole his heart.

So they decided to do it for him.

"I felt like we kind of had to pick up the ball where Andrew left off," said his father, Andy, a commercial real estate developer. "I know if he was here, he would still be trying to make a difference in Chester."

Just two weeks after his death, they formed the Andrew L. Hicks Jr. Foundation and collected school supplies for Chester students. A month later, they held a carnival, then a different event - bowling, toy drives, football games - each month after that.

Now, three years later, the foundation runs a summer camp and the Warrior Guide program that pairs Henderson High School students - the Warrior is their mascot - with Chester fourth, fifth, and sixth graders for monthly activities, such as ice skating, a college basketball game, a theater trip, community service.

At Friday's kickoff event, the Henderson-Coatesville football game, a record number of participants sat in the stands - 143 Chester youths and the same number of Henderson students, roughly 12 percent of the school population.

It is only 18 miles but a world apart from West Chester - a quaint town of trendy shops and restaurants ringed by comfortable suburban colonials and ranchers - to the City of Chester, where decades of rust and decline have left boarded-up homes and empty storefronts. The foundation is striving to bridge that gap.

"We're building an emotional bridge between Chester and West Chester," said Hicks, whose foundation has a tiny budget of about $80,000 this year and no paid staff. "Instead of being a place that you drive through on 95, or as a destination for a Union game, we're seeing that there are beautiful families here."

Andy Grear, a Henderson guidance counselor who is the Warrior Guide faculty adviser, said so many students wanted to participate he stopped taking applications. He's surprised, he said, by how close the two sides have become. The Henderson students "really put themselves out there" and the Chester ones run and hug their mentors when they see them.

Melissa Nollen, 21, a junior at West Chester University who was friends with Andrew, said "a ton" of kids from his graduating class got involved in the foundation. Now, she's an adult supervisor, and many friends still pitch in when they're home on college breaks.

"It's incredible," she said about working with the Chester youngsters. "As soon as you meet these children, they open up to you, they trust you, and they show so much love you can't help but have the best time."

Andrew experienced that and wanted his whole family to get involved, Karen Hicks said. But they were too preoccupied with jobs and sports to join in, she said. "I didn't know what I could do," she said.

Now, there isn't enough time to do everything. Her go-to volunteer in Chester, Rochelle Alexander-Baxter, met Andrew when he went to her house clad in a tie-dye T-shirt to see whether her twin 3-year-olds wanted to go to camp. He offered to take them and bring them back at the end of the day, she said.

The next summer, he didn't show up. When she met his mother during an event at the Ninth Street Youth and Community Center, she found out why. The two women instantly connected, and Alexander-Baxter has volunteered at nearly every foundation activity since.

"She's giving the children in Chester something that Chester should have had a long time ago," Alexander-Baxter said.

"We have an awesome relationship. It's not like any relationship I ever had before," she said.

The two families, who never would have met except for the passion and caring of a teenage boy, are so close they now celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together.

"It's so beautiful," Alexander-Baxter said of the bonds that have been formed. "They wanted to keep Andrew's dream alive and this is what he wanted to do."



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