Every community has them – people who work to make the lives of neighbors better. Sometimes they are part of a volunteer organization, sometimes they act on their own. They are block captains, they organize the neighborhood cleanups, run the soup kitchens, raise money to send the neighborhood kids to college. They do it because the community needs it and because they feel it’s the right thing to do.
Joanna Branch contacted NewsWorks to tell us about someone who she thought was a true local hero – Ray Gant.
When I heard you were looking for community heroes, Ray Gant came to mind immediately. Ray runs an organization called Neighbors In Action that is supported through Greater Philadelphia Cares. NIA reaches out to community leaders and concerned citizens to revitalize neglected neighborhoods in Philadelphia. NIA encourages residents to take ownership of their neighborhood through volunteerism, specifically neighborhood cleanups. I met Ray for the first time in 2009 when I brought a group of students to 9th and Ontario for a Thanksgiving weekend cleanup. It was cold, and I wasn’t sure how my students would feel about picking up trash for 3 hours. When Ray stepped out of his green clean-up van I knew it was going to be a good day. Ray’s enthusiasm and positive energy are contagious. It’s clear how deeply he believes in the importance of this work. For Ray each cleanup is a small, important step towards a larger goal. He really makes you believe that through the hard work of committed citizens we really can transform blighted neighborhoods into places of pride.
We caught up with Ray Gant at a community clean up in Frankford last weekend. He runs the Neighbors in Action project, “assisting block captains”. He was leading a group of volunteers through an alley off 3rd and Oregon streets.
Dogs barked like crazy on either side of the 3-foot alley as volunteers chopped weeds and swept away garbage, being careful not to snag their hair on sagging barbed wire. Gant instructed volunteers to be careful, not to pick up anything by hand, due to the danger of encountering drug paraphernalia.
Gant often finds the remnants of drug use in his clean ups, but he is also familiar with it from his former life as a drug dealer. He served 12 years for a drug distribution charge and decided to turn his life around.
When he came out of prison he worked in waste management before being laid off in a merger. In 2005 he was preparing a construction crew to travel down to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when he got a job with Greater Philly Cares.
Even when he was selling drugs he was trying, in his own way, to help the communities he was hurting. Gant says that he made anonymous donations to a church. When he met with other high level drug dealers they would complain that he was “slinging backwards” because of the good he tried to do for the community.
Today Gant is moving forward, helping people keep their streets clean to reclaim, restore and revive their neighborhoods. “Whatever this alley looks like now – I wanna be able to take a picture when we’re finished – and send it to Hallmark so they can make a postcard.”
Do you know Ray Gant? Has he made a difference in your community? Leave a comment on this story. Let us know what you think.
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