Two months ago, as summer gave way to fall, I saw the scourge of violent crime creeping closer to my community. There were three murders within walking distance of my home. A suspected drug house sprung up on a nearby block. It felt like our quiet neighborhood was changing for the worse.
My wife suggested a simple solution — banding together with neighbors on the blocks surrounding our own. It was a sound solution, and one that she began putting into practice.
This blog is the first in a series highlighting neighbors who’ve been proactive in making our community a safer place.
The Daniels family
We begin on Thouron Avenue near Upsal, where Erick and Sherilyn Daniels have spent the first four years of their marriage committed not only to each other, but also to their community.
Both have a particular focus on young people, no doubt fueled by memories of their own childhoods. Though they grew up in starkly different environments, the lessons they learned gave them examples of what they desired in their own community, and just as important, what they didn’t want.
Erick, a 45-year-old maintenance manager, recalls the grim realities of 29th and Diamond streets, the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up.
“It was pretty much run by the drug dealers,” he says. “For me to be spared, to be right here today, is a blessing, because I’ve seen a lot of people I’ve grown up with — a lot of my friends — get killed and die right before me.”
That ugly truth, Erick says, motivates him to make his own community better.
Sherilyn, a 43-year-old paralegal, has a different motivation.
Her neighborhood at 4th and Thompson streets was nearly the opposite of her husband’s.
“Everybody knew everybody,” she says. “You were allowed to scold somebody else’s kid. … I didn’t see any [violence and drug dealing]. Not on 4th and Thompson.”
Making a change
Still, their divergent experiences not only drew them together, they drew them to a cause, and now the couple serves as block captains, working with youth and seniors through an organization they created called Men About Change.
Their solutions for creating a safer neighborhood are simple and easily replicated.
Raising money through car washes, they create activities for the neighbors on their block, thus fostering an atmosphere of cooperation.
One key to their success is learning their neighbors’ names. Another is soliciting the ideas of young people. As a result, when cleanups and other block-wide activities take place, the youth are among the first to participate.
“If [young people] see adults doing things and caring about where they live,” Sherilyn says, “they’re going to care as well.”
Before and after
But engaging youth is important not only on the front end. It’s also important on the back end — even after they get in trouble.
Erick, who has seen people close to him come back from prison and try to reintegrate into society, knows that it’s important to grab young people before they make bad decisions. It’s also imperative to grab them afterward, and men have to play a key role in doing so.
“It’s hard and a lot of times you want to give up on them, and they’re rebelling,” Erick says. “But, you still have to keep that focus that we need to help them, because if not, those same kids that we give up on are going to be the same kids that’s robbing and stealing and breaking into your homes, and even worse, taking innocent lives.”
He pauses before voicing the truth he’s seen play out too many times in Philadelphia: “And it’s not the adults anymore. It’s the kids taking the lives.”
Still, he says, there’s hope for our neighborhood, and for Philadelphia as a whole, because the city is much more than it appears to be.
“As bad as our city is in some ways, it’s more good in other ways, in a lot of ways that a lot of people don’t [recognize],” Erick says. “Philadelphia’s a beautiful city. You just have to come and really overlook the bad and look at the good. Open your heart up to the good and you’ll see more than you can imagine.”