Get to know some of North Central Philly’s ‘unsung heroes’

In the city, there are people who go above and beyond to better the day-to-day life of their neighbors. But often, they get little recognition.

Award recipients pose for pictures after a ceremony at the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Award recipients pose for pictures after a ceremony at the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 of the Friends of West Oak Lane Library at the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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.

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“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.

Community champions are honored for their inspirational work in the community during a ceremony at the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (right), the founder and director of the Germantown Deaf Ministries Fellowship, received an award during the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 is a founding member of the Pastorius Community Gardens in East Germantown. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (right) has made it her life’s work to get automated external defibrillators in city facilities. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 was awarded for his health advocacy in the Logan community. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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.

Longtime Nicetown-Tioga block captain Lenise Miller was recognized for her work with the elderly and those experiencing homelessness. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 has served his Oak Lane community in a variety of ways for over 20 years. He currently chairs the Town Watch committee. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (right) was recognized for her work within the Ogontz community during the inaugural Unity Day at Vernon Park, in Germantown, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (center) received a Community Champions Award for her work in Ogontz. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 has worked on neighborhood beautification projects in West Oak Lane. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (right) has been a community advocate in West Oak Lane for seven decades. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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 (center) was awarded for her community work in West Oak Lane. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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.”

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