When Ed Riehl was 60, he had an epiphany. After years as a high-powered lawyer, he wanted to ditch corporate America and spend the rest of his life giving away his money.
The way Riehl saw it, he had advantages as a white man born at the end of World War II without the burden of generational poverty. If he had grown up in different circumstances, he said, he never would have had the opportunity to earn degrees, to work as a college professor, to become general counsel for a large international firm.
“I lucked into good fortune,” said Riehl. “So I founded an organization to get rid of the money that I don’t need.”
Riehl’s dream has taken root with the Delaware Valley Fairness Project, a nonprofit that supports Philadelphia schools and families. Since 2016, it has invested more than $500,000 on staff to support schools and on projects large and small, from launching and maintaining food pantries inside four city schools to buying furniture for a family getting back on its feet after homelessness.
Donors provide some funds, but the bulk of the money the organization spends — more than $200,000 in 2018, tax records show — has come from Riehl, now 73, who describes his project as a way to “make life a little more fair.”
Riehl has no time for those who believe that people who live in struggling neighborhoods aren’t doing anything to help themselves. To combat generations of injustice, he believes, those with something to give must do so.
“We are people who are intent on attacking poverty in any way we can,” he said.
Riehl grew up in New York in a working-class family. His father, a telephone installer, had a seventh-grade education. But his mother wanted more for her children.
“She believed in the power of education,” said Riehl.
His degrees — undergraduate, graduate, law school — were the keys to a different kind of life. Riehl practiced law for 30 years. He moved a lot and traveled more, but always felt called to service.
Riehl’s first post-retirement stop was Ukraine, where he taught English for two years as a Peace Corps member. He then spent time in Cambodia and Florida, and eventually found himself in Philadelphia, which was both close to family and the poorest big city in America.
Riehl and his ex-wife had adopted six older children who were now adults, and two of them lived close to Philadelphia, where the family had spent time when Riehl worked for A.C. Nielsen, the global marketing firm. (One of his children died of an opioid overdose in 2018.) He has 13 grandchildren.
In 2016, Riehl read an Inquirer article about Mitchell Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, a school starved for financial resources but led by a dynamic new principal. Riehl decided this was the place to begin his project.
The Delaware Valley Fairness Project, as Riehl called it, started in earnest with Riehl offering mini-grants of up to $500 for Mitchell teachers because he felt teachers should not have to be fund-raisers, as so many are. The organization paid for an aquarium so kindergartners could learn about life cycles, and for other things the Philadelphia School District’s budget didn’t stretch to pay for, things taken for granted in the suburbs.
Amid funding shortages in districts around the country, organizations like Riehl’s are growing in importance; outside philanthropy is increasingly crucial to many schools making ends meet.
To Stephanie Andrewlevich, now entering her fifth year as Mitchell’s principal, the grants were an enormous help, but even more important was what Riehl became for the school: He began working inside Mitchell to assess needs and to find and manage partnerships to fill them. He makes things happen, inside the school and in the community, for families the principal identifies as needing extra help.
“Almost every vision that we have, there’s a reason why it can’t happen — the politics, the budget, the manpower,” said Andrewlevich. “Ed’s not a blank check, but he gives hope and structure to a vision.”
Word got out. Riehl hired employees and added schools. To date, the organization has funded 263 projects at dozens of schools around the region, from after-school creative writing programs to books, games, and supplies to help support emotionally troubled students.
The Fairness Project also has formal partnerships in six Philadelphia School District schools: Mitchell, Overbrook Educational Center, Penrose, Moffet, Elkin, and Welsh.
This year, Riehl is moving the four Fairness Project food banks that used to exist inside schools to a centralized food pantry that will offer fresh and frozen foods and allow families to use an Amazon-like service that will allow them to order what they need and have it delivered.
He’s also hired a teacher and is adding adult education classes based at Fairness Project schools to help parents learn skills from money management to mindfulness. There will also be a new service-learning club piloting at Mitchell.
Riehl believes he can continue funding the Fairness Project at its current level for about five more years, but aims to keep it running indefinitely with outside philanthropic support, or perhaps by building a revenue-generating business the nonprofit could run to sustain itself. He plans to remain involved as long as his health permits, and eventually to hire and train a new executive director.
Charles Brown is an involved parent, a single father to four bright kids he’s taught to play chess and work hard.
Health problems and other challenges make things tough for Brown, but in the last few years his family has been given a boost by Riehl, whom he met through Mitchell.
Brown, his three daughters, and son were homeless for a time. And when he finally saved up enough to rent a home, the Fairness Project provided furniture, Brown said, motioning to the sturdy walnut dining table where the family gathers to eat meals their chef father prepares for them.
Riehl feels like a member of the family, showing up to drive Zion Brown to a weekly appointment, talking about an upcoming trip to help with school supplies for the kids.
“I just want to go to work and take care of my kids, but it’s hard out there,” said Brown. “This organization helps me a lot. I love Mr. Ed.”
Michelle Spraggins, another active parent and School Advisory Council member at Mitchell, said she’s never met someone like Riehl, who comes from outside the neighborhood with no agenda, fits in easily, and asks nothing in return.
“I have experienced it — I have watched Mr. Ed carry many families for months with their living situations with housing, clothes, whatever the barriers were,” Spraggins said. “I called him, and he stepped right in the same day and said, ‘What are the needs?’ ”
Riehl projects calm and is as comfortable in Kingsessing as in Old City, where he lives. The office rented by the Fairness Project in a community center on Kensington Avenue is spare, the only decorations photos of the children whom the organization assists taped to yellow walls. Riehl smiles when he talks about the families he’s met, the children who have track uniforms and field trips because of his organization.