For the past two decades, Raymond Gant, 65, has been a fixer, clean up man, gap-filler, whip-cracker and resource connector for some of the toughest neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. Efforts he says are mission driven:
“It is a mission to make sure that people in low income communities just get the required service that’s deserved to us as people just being human beings,” he says.
Gant is co-founder, president and CEO of The Ray of Hope Project. He began his mission in 2001 helping seniors deal with structural damage in their homes. Gant and his volunteers would provide free labor and materials and fix plumbing, electrical systems, roofs and other major issues with older homes for people who qualified. They helped keep roughly 80 people in their homes. But as time went on the need evolved.
“The trash, and the litter and just the poverty,” says Gant. “That just took precedence- and our mission became not only to not only beautify, but to bring back these communities.”
The Ray of Hope Project began spear-heading neighborhood clean-ups with volunteers from local areas and groups from all over the world. Gant says they work alongside city service departments to expand and expedited trash removal in hard hit neighborhoods to not only make them safer, but also to bring hope.
“Mr. Ray’s a guy who knows people and knows how to contact people,” says Debra Colbert, who’s been a volunteer for Ray of Hope Project since 2015.
A resident of Hunting Park recalled multiple occasions when she took pictures of dump sites or debris strewn blocks in her neighborhood or others and told Gant about it. She says he’d make a few phone calls and things would happen.
“Mr. Ray is he’s not a celebrity,” she says, “but he goes above and beyond and he gives more than he has to.”
On one occasion, Colbert says she visited Kensington and had to park a block from her location. She says trash was piled up.
“It didn’t make me feel safe…. I can’t imagine my child walking down the block,” she says, “Not knowing whether we were going to step on a needle. “
Colbert says Philadelphia CLIP services came out swiftly, thanks to a call from Gant.
But in addition to clean ups, Colbert helps Gant and ROH provide support for families in need. They collect toys, clothing, toiletries and even food to give away whenever the need arises. This past Christmas, they gave out bags of toys to neighborhood kids.
“I called him and I gave him that Black Santa,” she says, referring to a gift in the ROH headquarters. “So that’s how I see him as Santa Claus for many children.”
While Gant says he’s always been a giver, his community focused mission is fairly new.
“I was a street hustler, you know,” he says, “ and the drug dealers in Philadelphia put a hit on my life.”
That was in 1987. At the time, Gant was 30 years old.
“They told me I wasn’t going to see my 31st, birthday.”
April 1987- Gant says he ended up in prison. He celebrated 31 years old that August behind the wall.
“People want to say… you found God in prison, no prison actually saved my life,” he says.
His calling- the mission- he says found him years later.
“I was chasing the girl and I chased her straight to church,” he says, chuckling.
More than two decades later, while the girl is long gone, the 65 year old is still drawn to the work. And much of his work is visible. He was a featured face of the City of Philadelphia “Unlitter Us” campaign, featured on trash cans throughout the city. And he and his 15 year old, hunter green Dodge 1500 truck, known as “Felix,” can be spotted around town at volunteer clean up sites.
But then there’s the side of his work no one sees. Like the first floor of his North Philadelphia row home — it’s been converted to storage space for ROH donations. Gant lives upstairs.
“People were stealing all the donations,” he says of other locations ROH used for storage. “They’d take all the best stuff and leave little for the people who really needed it.’
The first floor is also home to some of his favorite possessions: cards, pictures, posters and small gifts posted on the wall and on a nearby shelf.
“It’s my wall of love,” he says.
The wall includes tokens from the folks he’s helped or others who helped him. And that mission driven effort is impacting a new generation of volunteers.
“It’s fun to get out- and help,” says Jordan Colbert, Debra’s 17 year old daughter.
She says Mr. Ray is a “good soul.”
“I mean, he goes above and beyond for the community and the people,” she says.
In recent months, Gant announced he’d be retiring in 2022.
“To do some things I’ve wanted to do,” he says.
Like work on his health and travel. But he’ll still be around, doing good soul work.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll ever hang up my hat,” he says, “we’ve have become a voice for this community and people listen to us.”
Ray Gant was nominated for the Good Souls Project by Joanna Branch, a longtime ROH volunteer. She called Gant a “good soul” who’s welcoming smile greets volunteers and harnesses their efforts to “clean and re-clean the same blighted areas. His dedication and persistence has meant safer cleaner neighborhood, and is ceaseless.