In 2013, the L.P. Hill School in Strawberry Mansion shut down amidst budget cuts and poor performance, and the neighborhood lost an anchor institution for its youth.
The nearby Strawberry Mansion High School, long plagued by both real violence and the reputation for violence, had been on the chopping block, too, but was spared following community outrage. But since then, the Hill building has sat empty.
So, community activists Sherri Brown and Tanya Parker went directly to some of those most affected by the closure — ninth graders at Strawberry Mansion — and asked what they wanted to see the space become.
“We partnered up,” said Brown, 61, who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. “We didn’t want just anybody coming into the neighborhood and coming into Hill School.”
One of the common responses from that survey? A PAL Center — that is, a local outpost of the Police Athletic League’s after-school hub for 6- through 18-year-olds, with programming such as sports teams, chess clubs and homework help. A full-time police officer is assigned to run each center.
The high school’s former principal connected Brown and Parker to Ted Qualli, PAL’s executive director, plus local politicians such as City Council President Darell Clarke, and then “the wheels started turning,” Brown said. Strawberry Mansion PAL Center’s opening day in the former Hill School was Sept. 7, with about 400 kids already registered.
Qualli said the biggest challenge to opening in the old school was renovating the dilapidated gym, which was filled with puddles and broken lightbulbs from years of neglect — “but it had all the bones PAL needs to have a successful center.”
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The turnaround took multiple partnerships and local champions, and transformed this …
… to this.
As with many nonprofits, PAL relies on its partners to meet its mission. The organization has a longstanding partnership with Building Owners and Mangers Association (BOMA), the membership of which includes electricians, carpenters and the like who have renovated past PAL centers pro bono.
“Strawberry Mansion is the fifth PAL center they did for free, soup to nuts,” Qualli said, including bathroom retrofitting, painting and window replacements, at a total value of about half a million dollars.
The Carpenter’s Union, too, jumped in to install a new gym floor, Clarke hooked PAL up with a free roof and GEICO signed on as its Adopt-a-Center partner and will contribute ongoing funding to the center.
Part of PAL’s expansion into Strawberry Mansion is also due to Sixers owner Josh Harris, who contributed a $3.5 million capacity building grant spread over five years in 2015. A goal of the grant was to grow PAL’s number of locations from 18 to 25 and increase citywide enrollment from 15,000 and 20,000 by 2019.
“It takes a village but this village that’s putting its arms around Strawberry Mansion is huge,” Qualli said. “In each case, we found a way for these groups — donors, individuals — to help us in fulfillment of our mission by helping them do what they do best.”
For instance, BOMA transforms building interiors on a regular basis, and many of its members are former PAL kids. Josh Harris is the founding partner of investing firm Apollo Global Management, which helps underperforming companies turn themselves around, and Harris saw what PAL needed and “wondered if we could it turn the Apollo model to philanthropy.”
But perhaps most importantly, the community stepped up in the first place.
“If not for them, we wouldn’t be in this school serving these kids,” Qualli said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m the best fundraiser in the world — if the community isn’t on board, we can’t be successful. This center is an enormous testament to [their work].”
Those ninth graders who said they wanted the PAL Center in Strawberry Mansion? They just graduated in June and are “really excited” to see a dream of theirs come to fruition, according to Brown.
“There’s so much negativity going on, and it kind of consumes them in the neighborhood, and it’s hard for them to believe their dreams can actually come true,” she said. It “gives them a real sense of hope that they can accomplish anything and that they have a role to play in the community.”-30-
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