When people ask me where I grew up, I often say North Philly, because that’s where I learned to survive in spite of everything around me. But for the first 13 years of my life, I lived in West Oak Lane, and it was there that I learned about family.
In the tree-lined community where I first threw a football, chased a girl or threw a basketball into a milk crate, two-parent households were the norm. But as the 1970s gave way to the eighties, families, including mine, began to crumble.
When my parents separated, my mother moved my brother and me to North Philly, and she tried to keep our lives as normal as possible. She went to work every day and cooked nearly every night. She pushed us to do well in school. She taught us faith. And though my father was always present in our lives, it’s my mother’s hard work I remember when I look back on those years.
I had no idea back then what she was up against.
Extracurricular activities in schools were losing funding.
Philadelphia bled jobs as manufacturing shifted to the sunbelt.
The city lost people.
The neighborhood lost hope.
Then, the drugs came and many lives, including my own, spiraled downward.
I spent parts of the early ’90s in shadows, falling into addiction while losing myself on street corners like Broad and Erie or Broad and Girard. When finally I got my life back on track, the tenacity I’d learned on North Philly’s streets was a huge part of turning things around. The support of family was also important. So was the sense of purpose I gained from my faith.
Faith into action
That’s why I’m so proud to be deeply involved in planning Hope 4 Philly-West Oak Lane, a community event that takes place this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Pennypacker School, which is located at 1858 E. Washington Lane.
Not only is the location less than a mile from the Cedarbrook community where I live today, but it’s also just a mile from the West Oak Lane street where I learned so much about family.
I remember the camaraderie of playing tackle football in the street with my friends and hide-and-seek in the driveway.
I remember learning to play with spinning tops on asphalt.
I remember the laughter as we sat on the steps and told jokes about one another on summer nights.
But more than that, I remember a sense of safety — a sense of knowing that the adults around us were hardworking people who cared deeply about us all.
Remembering, not imitating
Even so, I’m not trying to bring back the West Oak Lane of the past. I’m trying to help to bring back the West Oak Lane of the present.
To do so, all of us, myself included, will have to remember the importance of family. We’ll have to remember that every child is as important as our own, that every neighbor can eventually become a friend and that every day is another opportunity to help someone.
Sometimes, I’m so worn out from the stresses of everyday life, so tired from trying to provide for my family, so consumed with the problems that come with work, marriage and parenthood that I forget to stop and help someone.
I’ve learned over the years that helping others isn’t just about them. It’s about me. It’s about learning how small and insignificant my own problems really are.
So I’m going to do something on Saturday: I’m going to help someone.
Through Hope 4 Philly-West Oak Lane — an event that will bring together employers like SEPTA, the Philadelphia Police Deptartment and Shoprite, — we’ll try to assist others in gaining employment.
Through the Criminal Record Expungement Project and Ready Willing & Able, we’ll try to help men who’ve taken a wrong turn to get back on track.
With free food and Moonbounces for kids, we’ll try to bring more joy to children.
And, by gathering mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in a fun and festive atmosphere, we’ll try to celebrate and revive the thing I’ve always loved best about West Oak Lane: Its sense of family.
Along the way, I’ll share the things that have allowed me to do better, to reach higher, and to reach back: My loved ones, my faith and the community that shaped me.
After all, this thing is about family.
For more information about Hope 4 Philly-West Oak Lane, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Pennypacker School, call (215) 621-6907.