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Paying It Forward

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 I love springtime in Philadelphia. On the warms March days, I can sneak in an early clean-up day at my Hummingbird Garden at the Horticultural Center in Fairmount Park. Early in the season before the tulips and daffodils bloom, there are few visitors to the gardens. So at 7 a.m. early in March I ventured over to my garden to begin to awaken it from its winter sleep. Thirty minutes later, I noticed a tall, slender young man dressed in a black windbreaker with a black backpack walking down the path. I kept one eye on him as he passed. He didn't seem to notice me, but entered the last garden and sat on the picnic bench, rested his arms on the table and put his head down as if to sleep.

I continued to rake and fill bags with leaves. I noticed him standing up and walking toward my garden. He walked over to me and asked if I needed help. I explained to him that these were volunteer gardens, and "yes", any help would be appreciated. He picked up the extra rake and began to work beside me raking leaves and filling bags. He was a handsome black teenager who appeared to be no more than 16.

As we worked, I found out that his name was Eric. I asked how he found his way here. He told me that he was 16 years old and a grown man now. His mother was a drug addict, and his father had left when he was a baby. He has been raised by his grandfather who had been a great role model. But his grandfather had died recently, leaving him with his new girlfriend who had children of her own. He was unhappy with how he had been treated since his grandfather died. So, this very morning, he (a full-grown man) had left home. 

Through tearful eyes he told me that he was an honor student at a local high school. So, I asked, "Do you have a place to sleep tonight?" The answer was "no". "Do you have any other family in Philadelphia. "Yes", he had a sister in the "projects".  He didn't' know the address, but surely I knew where the "projects" were.

Well, I knew there were many "projects" in Philadelphia. So, after several hours of garden clean-up, I asked him if he wanted some lunch. Yes, he hadn't eaten since yesterday. I brought him to the Centennial Café for lunch. While at the café he borrowed a computer and tried to find the address of his sister. Eric was squinting a lot, so I asked him if he was having trouble seeing. Through teary eyes he told me that he had walked from 69th street on City Avenue to Presidential Boulevard. He had stopped at a fast food place many hours before to use the rest room. He was crying so hard that he took off his glasses to wipe his eyes and left them there. I offered to take him back to the restaurant to find them. Perhaps someone had turned them in to lost and found. This was the first time I saw him smile.

As I glanced at him sitting in my car, I thought about my own son--now 20. I thought about how his first years at college had been so hard. I thought about how but for the kindness of a stranger I might have lost him. My son had an apartment at 13th and Chestnut Streets. One night at 2 a.m. (typical student hours) my son set off on his bike to see a friend in South Philadelphia. While riding on 13th Street, he hit a pothole and flipped off his bike. Although we had conversations ad nauseum about wearing a helmet, he did not have one on. He was knocked unconscious in the middle of the street. Hearing the story later made my hair stand on end. A stranger who was driving on 13th, stopped to help him, called an ambulance, and made sure he was safely brought to Jefferson Hospital. I never knew who that stranger was, but I am thankful every day that they kept my son safe. So I suppose helping Eric was my way of paying the kindness back, or paying it forward.

Eric did find his glasses in lost and found. And from a search online I found his sister's application for city housing. She was living in North Philadelphia. We set off to find Eric's sister.

When we finally located his sister's building, my heart sank. The look on Eric's face said it all. He was petrified by what he saw. Here was a sheltered 16 year old who was nurtured by a loving grandfather in West Philadelphia near City Avenue, and his guide was a country girl transplanted to the suburbs transplanted to the city who was completely out of her element. At this point, I pulled the car over and asked Eric what he wanted to do. If he wished to stay here, I would wait with him, and if he wanted to leave I would bring him home with me. He and I both breathed a sigh of relief as we left the area for home.

So now what? It was now 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I was searching for this child's next best step. If I did not succeed in helping him, he could end up on the street and become like the unfortunate people we had seen earlier that day -- high, hungry, and homeless.

A friend recommended that I call Covenant House. They were wonderful, kind, and caring. After a conversation with Eric on the phone, they determined that they could help him. They would even provide him with daily bus transportation to his high school to finish his senior year. So, at 8:30 p.m. that evening, I was hugging Eric good bye as he was thanking me. He looked peaceful.

I called Covenant House several times to see how he was, but he never returned my calls.

I believe that sometimes people come into our lives when we need them. Sometimes we never see or hear from them again--like the stranger who helped my son. And that's really OK. What is important is that we can feel good about the choices we made. 

 

Pamela Sodi lives, gardens and writes in West Philadelphia.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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