This is a story I did for MURL, Temple University’s senior journalism class. The assignment was to go out into your assigned neighborhood – in my case, Strawberry Mansion- and report on how the residents feel about Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget proposal. This was a team reporting project, but I was responsible for the written portion.
Eric Jones* is almost 3 years old. His age is painfully apparent as his faulty legs struggle to carry him up the jungle gym beneath the weight of his puffy coat and snow cap. Eric spends his days the same way he has since he was 7 months old – in the care of Phyllis Fultz and Roslyn Fulton, who run the Urban Pioneers daycare on French and 31st streets near Ridge Avenue in Strawberry Mansion.
Eric – along with his five playmates – embodies childhood innocence, right down to the runny nose his caretakers attribute to the change in seasons. What Eric doesn’t know as he clasps the hands of a girl around his age, guiding her up the sliding board at Mander Playground at 33rd and Diamond streets in Fairmount Park, is that the odds are stacked against him. His race, socioeconomic status, neighborhood and infrequent contact with his father are designed to hold Eric back in life. These factors will work against him in every stage of his life until he either rises above or succumbs to them, becoming another statistic in Philadelphia’s records.
Several people will influence Eric’s life and guide him along what they hope turns out to be the right path: his parents, his caregivers and Mayor Michael Nutter.
Continue reading for thoughts from daycare owners, school teachers and nonprofit organizations.
When the nation’s economy hit a record low last fall, the urban areas of the country were the first to feel the effects. Six months later, as Philadelphia tries to sustain itself in the face of a billion-dollar deficit, Strawberry Mansion’s children are at the center of the crisis. After threats of closing first libraries, then public pools, Nutter’s popularity is waning. The libraries will remain open for now, and some pools have been spared, but Strawberry Mansion residents aren’t satisfied with the way the budget proposal has panned out.
“This is terrible,” Fulton said with one eye on the swings where three of charges swayed back and forth, blissfully ignorant of the tough road they’re facing. “There will be nothing for the kids to do this summer if the mayor doesn’t put some money back into the community.”
Fulton and Fultz bring the six children to the playground whenever the weather warrants it. They sit and watch tiny hands grip the monkey bars and push small bodies on swings, all in the middle of new basketball and tennis courts – courts that will go unused this summer if the community can’t come up with enough money to fund organized teams with coaches. Fultz worries that the pool at Mander playground won’t open this summer, leaving kids with nothing to do.
“The pool is better than the hydrant,” she said. “There needs to be a place for the kids to go, and someone to keep an eye on them.”
For Fultz, the rec center is more than just a place for kids to play.
“Kids need to be socialized so they can learn to get along with other people. How are they supposed to get along when they’re older if no one ever teaches them?”
Fulton worries most about the older kids – the preteens who are aching for more freedom and the teenagers who need help staying on track.
“Kids do things just to be mischievous,” she said. “The older kids suffer most from the lack of organizations. They need a guided path, or they’ll get into whatever they can.”
Shirley Boggs knows what happens when there aren’t enough resources for kids. Boggs founded Mothers United Through Tragedy Inc. 11 years ago after one of her twin sons was murdered. The nonprofit works to provide counseling to people who have lost young loved ones through violence and create programs for drug and violence prevention. Boggs has helped many people through her work with MUTT, but without city funding, she is floundering.
“I don’t get any money from the city,” she said. “I’m running the business out of my home because I could no longer afford to pay the bills on the other building.
The former MUTT Inc. building sits temporarily abandoned on the corner of Napa Street and Lehigh Avenue at the edge of Strawberry Mansion. Without government funding, Boggs couldn’t afford to keep the building up.
“I just don’t understand why, with all these bailouts and budget plans and proposals, there’s no money for the kids. There are good people giving everything they have of themselves to make kids’ lives better, and the mayor isn’t helping. Doesn’t he realize that by not giving us money now, he’ll have to put more money into juvenile facilities and the police department later?”
Nutter’s budget proposal didn’t leave room for youth organizations, but the mayor does have plans to help keep 30 city pools open. The Splash and Summer FUNd program is a project headed by the City of Philadelphia and United Way that will allow businesses, community groups and individuals to donate to the cause to keep public pools open this summer. So far, the city has raised $480,000 toward its $1.2 million goal.
Harrison Jardia said he thinks keeping the pools open is just a small part of what kids need. The Strawberry Mansion High School aide brings his autistic students to Mander playground for a break every day.
“All kids need an outlet,” he said. The break from learning helps my students a lot, and all children deserve that. What will happen to these kids without a place to go?
In 15 years, Eric Jones will be 18. He will still be wearing a puffy coat and snow cap. He’ll likely have a volatile relationship with his father. And if all goes well, he’ll be getting ready to graduate Strawberry Mansion High School. In 15 years, Eric could be tutoring kids at the library and holding down a summer job as a lifeguard for the Mander Recreation Center pool. He could just as easily be ditching school, selling drugs and facing jail time. Eric’s future depends on the quality of his childhood, and that depends on the resources available to him.
*Roslyn Fulton and Phyllis Fultz asked that Eric Jones’ real name not be used, as he is so young, and they are not his primary caregivers.