In Strawberry Mansion, a safe haven's founder aims to turn apathy to ambition - Generocity Philly

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Aug. 6, 2018 1:00 pm

In Strawberry Mansion, a safe haven’s founder aims to turn apathy to ambition

Kevin Upshur founded the North Philadelphia nonprofit 10 years ago so local kids could have a respite from the streets. Despite national press and high-profile partnerships, challenges persist.

Kevin Upshur with SMLC students.

(Photo via facebook.com/SMLCPHILLY)

Ten years ago, the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center (SMLC) started with a bar and a bookshelf.

The bar was gutted, now replaced with a row of computers. The bookshelf remains, and personalized duplicates line the wall — titles like “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?’ How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire.”

The first bookshelf is from Kevin Upshur’s Strawberry Mansion home, and one of the many changes he made to the former bar on Dauphin and 30th streets that now houses the SMLC, a community center for youth that runs year-round programs, including a summer reading program through Aug. 29.

In its 10 years of being nonprofit, Upshur estimates that the SMLC has helped “hundreds” of people. It’s been featured on numerous news outlets, including an “Inspiring America” segment by Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News and a Q&A with Rachael Ray, during which he received a $25,000 donation.

And it all began with a love of reading, his favorite subject at school. Upshur, who grew up in the neighborhood, was in the first graduating class at Strawberry Mansion High School in 1977 and always wanted to open a bookstore.

His mother, who owned the bar that SMLC replaced, was an inspiration, too. A sign that reads, “For all that I am, and ever hope to be, I owe to my mother,” hangs next to a photo of her in the center.

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“She always told me to help people,” he said. “She said I needed to find a way to be there for people.”

A reason to stay

When Upshur’s mother, Shirley, died in 2006, he said the neighborhood had changed since his childhood.

“It was safer growing up,” he said. “There were jobs in the community for young kids. Now, you don’t see none of these kids working in the community.”

The 22nd District, which includes Strawberry Mansion, had the third-highest number of shooting victims in 2016, according to Philadelphia Police Department’s most recent Annual Murder and Shooting Victim report.

Upshur hopes the SMLC can be a reason kids spend time in Strawberry Mansion. During the school year, there is after-school homework help Monday through Thursday. SMLC also partners with American Muslims for Hunger Relief to provide free halal meals at the center on every third Saturday of the month from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Upshur will take kids on field trips, too: They recently saw the Philadelphia Orchestra play songs from the Star Wars franchise’s soundtrack at The Mann Center.

(Photo via facebook.com/SMLCPHILLY)

SMLC’s work attract teenagers and young adults who volunteer — like Shania Bell, Upshur’s niece. She was 7 years old when SMLC opened.

Now a 17-year-old student at Strawberry Mansion High School, Bell remembers going to the center after school to work on homework when she was younger.

“Whenever I can and whenever he says ‘Alright, we need help,’ wherever I can get in at, I help him out,” she said. “I’ll always end up back here somehow.”

Helping hands from the community come in many forms. Reading Terminal Market partners with SMLC to provide free meals and a program that employs young SMLC volunteers, and Upshur picks up pastries from Wawa a few days per week. The computers were all donated by organizations like the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Awards for Upshur and SMLC hang on the center’s walls, next to posters touting Black figures such as James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston.

But limitations still exist.

Ongoing challenges

About five days per week, Upshur’s shift starts at 10 p.m. Eight hours later, he’ll get home from the Juvenile Justice Center, where he’s worked as a counselor for 21 years.

The work at SMLC fills in the rest of his hours during the week, he said. His phone will ring a few times per hour with questions and ideas for the center. People drop by with unannounced — but appreciated — donations or company; Upshur had to pause our interview multiple times when old friends and relatives came by to say hi.

If he could focus all of his time on the SMLC, he said, he knows it could expand and offer more. The center’s bathroom and kitchen are currently undergoing some renovations due to nearly $50,000 raised via a 2016 GoFundMe. But the SMLC is completely supported by donations, so need is always present.

An attitude of apathy in Strawberry Mansion is draining, too, Upshur said. Just a few weeks ago, he had kids help him make “No Dumping” signs for a lot that collected dozens of tires and arranged for their disposal.

It’s a small blip on the timeline of SMLC’s work, but he wants to see more action from the community to clean the lots, attend community meetings and advocate for their shared home.

“This isn’t about me,” he said. “This is about what we can do all together for our neighborhood and the kids here.”

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