Some of them are known for helping high school students register to vote. Or for waking up in the middle of the night to take someone to the emergency room.
In close-knit communities like North Central Philadelphia, there are people that go above and beyond to better the day-to-day life of their neighbors. But often, they get little recognition for their efforts.
The North Central Community Council saw a way to fix that. For the second year in a row, the council — a collaborative made up of the friends groups for several North Central Philadelphia libraries — organized Community Champion Awards to honor unsung heroes in their neighborhoods.
Carol Chatman Ruiz, current president of the Friends of the West Oak Lane Library, helped with organizing Saturday’s Unity Day at Vernon Park in Germantown, where the awards were presented and where local residents could learn about city services available to them through agencies such as the Department of Licenses & Inspection and the Department of Public Health.
“A lot of the people that are unsung heroes in their communities, they’ve been living there for years,” Ruiz said. “They’ve seen the neighborhoods change, and they have said to their selves, what can I as an individual do to make my community safe?”
Neighborhoods represented in the community council — and in the awards — include Germantown, Logan, Nicetown-Tioga, Oak Lane, Ogontz, and West Oak Lane. They’re communities that often don’t receive positive media coverage, Ruiz said.
Those receiving the awards, she said, are people just trying to preserve the sense of community in the neighborhood, in a time when Philadelphia is rapidly changing.
“They realize that they want to keep the area a certain way, looking a certain way and that we have to work with each other,” Ruiz said. “We can’t just say ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk to my neighbor, I don’t want to communicate, I don’t want to try.’ These are people trying to make a difference in their own way. “
Honored as champions of their communities, by their communities, were:
Rosalind McKelvey, Germantown
She’s the founder and director of the Germantown Deaf Ministries Fellowship, a nonprofit that offers support to Philadelphia’s deaf community. McKelvey holds monthly meetings for the fellowship at the ShopRite of Fox Street in Germantown, providing information about local services and laws that may affect the deaf. As the presenter of this award noted, there have been plenty of times when McKelvey has attended a doctor’s appointment or visited the emergency room with a deaf person — sometimes in the middle of the night — to make sure they were informed about their treatment.
After accepting her award, McKelvey sang and signed to the gospel hymn “Love Lifted Me.”
“Love is what helps us get together, and everyone agrees that you need more love,” she said.
Vita Litvak, Germantown
She’s a founding member of the Pastorius Community Gardens, which grows fruit and vegetables in East Germantown to increase access to locally grown, affordable nutrition, as well as offer more green space for neighbors to come together to share stories, recipes and seeds. The gardens also host a free music series every third Thursday of the month during growing season, April through October.
“Vita works tirelessly and without pay to give back to the community that she loves and calls home,” Margaret Taylor, president of the Friends of Coleman Library, said during the ceremony.
Viola Owens, Germantown
She created the Daniel E. Rumph II Foundation, which helps place automated external defibrillators in city facilities, like recreation centers. Owens made that her life’s work after her son Daniel died of cardiomyopathy at a park in Germantown in 2005. The foundation also offers CPR and AED training to young people in the city. Owens has partnered with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to create better access to heart screenings and more awareness of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — the leading cause of cardiac arrest in young adults. She also is known for her Easter egg hunts, her Christmas parties, and her turkey giveaways around Thanksgiving.
“I’d like to thank God for turning a tragedy into a triumph,” Owens said after accepting her award. “I’d like to thank everybody that supports me, especially my family and friends, because all of my work I couldn’t do without them.”
Tyrone Boykin, Logan
For five years, he has been a health advocate for the Logan community, volunteering with Einstein Healthcare Network. Boykin serves on Einstein’s community advisory board and assists with Philly’s World AIDS Day commemorations. In the past, he also worked as a peer support specialist with Hub of Hope, a walk-in center for Philadelphians experiencing homelessness. Boykin is also a member of Act Up Philadelphia, an HIV/AIDS activist group.
“Tyrone Boykin is a thoughtful, kind, warm-hearted person that contributes to the betterment of his community and the well-being of North Philadelphia residents like himself,” Lynne Haase, branch manager at the Logan branch of the Free Library, said during the award presentation.
Lenise Miller, Nicetown-Tioga
She has been a block captain in her neighborhood for 15 years and chooses to give back to her community every holiday by feeding elderly people and those experiencing homelessness. Miller also often works closely with City Council members, staffing tables at community events to better inform the neighborhood of the resources available. Previously, she was the health chair for the NAACP’s Philadelphia chapter, and she is currently a member of the Nicetown Friends group.
“Lenise has a passion for improving her neighborhood and uplifting the community members she works with,” Debra E. Johnson, who manages the Nicetown-Tioga branch of the Free Library, said during the presentation.
Eric Brice, Oak Lane
He has served as a block captain for over 20 years and, among other roles, is a former president of the Oak Lane Community Action Association. Brice currently chairs his community’s Town Watch committee, as he’s done for the last 15 years. He’s also known for his cooking skills, which he shares with the neighborhood: To feed the community, Brice sets up a tent in his backyard with several smokers every Thanksgiving. He is the communication liaison for most events and meetings in the 35th District, and helped organize and open a community center in Oak Lane.
Junette Marcano, Ogontz
She’s a driving force working to improve the quality of life in Ogontz. Marcano chairs the Concerned Citizens for Change and has worked on issues such as voter participation, gun control, fair funding for public schools, and community safety.
“She is selfless and dedicated to working with the youth and giving back to her community,” Leni Johnson, president of Friends of the Ogontz Library, said during the award ceremony.
Sandra Broadus, Ogontz
After years of harsh winter conditions, Ogontz Avenue — a main thoroughfare — was damaged by road salt to the point where it was unsafe to drive on the street. Broadus helped initiate a community demand for more substantive road repairs on the avenue by the city. She was born and raised in Ogontz and also has worked to have resources allocated to thin out some heavily wooded areas in neighborhood parks, as well as to install more lighting and add police patrols to Kemble Park and Harpers Hollow Park. Broadus is involved with A Concerned Community Association, a registered community organization in Ogontz. She and ACCA have been working closely with city and state officials to spark the rebirth of the Broad and Olney business corridor.
In accepting her award, Broadus said, “We were quickly becoming a forgotten community that was losing its voice, and the fact that A Concerned Community Association was able to be formed and to do all the things that are actually going on in the community is a tribute to our neighborhood and the dedication of the neighbors who are determined to keep and maintain the dignity of the … neighborhood.”
Adolphus Bey, West Oak Lane
Since retiring, he has been a tireless community activist for West Oak Lane, attending meetings to voice his concerns about neighborhood beautification projects. For years, Bey has walked throughout the neighborhood speaking with residents to inform them about programs and city resources that are available to them. He can often be found participating in community cleanups, reporting abandoned cars and illegal dumping.
Mary Alston, West Oak Lane
She has been an advocate in West Oak Lane for over 70 years. Alston is often one of the first to sign up for a community program or project that’s in need of volunteers. One anecdote shared Saturday about Alston recalled a community cleanup she organized. Although none of her team showed up that day, she started the process of cleaning up by herself and then recruited a group of young people in the neighborhood to join her.
Now in her 80s, Alston “continues to shine her humanitarian light” to improve the West Oak Lane community, said Rodney Baker, who works in State Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald’s office.
“What I do, it doesn’t all come from me,” Alston said after accepting her award. “The neighborhood helps me when they praise me for every little thing I do, you give me more strength and encouragement to do more … and I want to continue to do all that I do because I love all of you.”
Donna Powell, West Oak Lane
She works diligently to organize projects and recruit volunteers to improve West Oak Lane, assisting in community gardening, cleaning, and beautification projects in the neighborhood. Powell also helps high school students in the neighborhood register to vote.
“Yesterday, I heard that my grandson was bragging, saying his grandmom is a champion,” Powell said in accepting her award. “Can you imagine that? His grandmom is a champion. And that’s what this is all about, [inspiring the] the next generation.”