Up to now, folks in Southwest and West Philly knew the ECO Foundation by the good it did in the community, not for its footprint.
When protests and unrest shut down neighborhood food markets this summer, nonprofit ECO — Education Culture Opportunities — brought in produce and other groceries so people wouldn’t go hungry. Over the last two years, the grassroots group’s programming also has used the arts and entertainment to reach children, to educate and mentor them, and to strengthen families.
It’s still going to do all that. But now it’s going to invite the neighbors in to stay awhile.
On Aug. 16, the ECO Foundation celebrated the grand opening of its ECO Center, located at 5411 Market St. Since the nonprofit came into being in 2018, it has partnered with major institutions that serve its communities such as Bartram’s Garden, Richard Allen Prep Charter School, Girard College, and Cheyney University. But it never had a home of its own.
“We would go wherever people needed us — wherever we can serve, we move,” said Kyle “The Conductor” Morris, 30, ECO’s executive director. “This will be a really great opportunity to have a hub — one place where we can really meet the needs of the community, tap in, and figure out what they want.”
The partnerships with those larger, stalwart institutions will continue, like ECO’s Royal by Nature summer day camp it holds with Bartram’s Garden. But Bella Goodwin, 30, who is an ECO board member and parent and also the camp’s operations manager, said having a building will help ECO build relationships with people in the community.
“I think it will just really enhance what we are trying to do and just lean deeper into the mission of the ECO Foundation,” said Goodwin, a teacher during the school year.
ECO’s mission is to support the community in many ways. The new center will be a centralized location for ECO’s food program. In addition, Morris said, the new building will have computer area where students can get virtual learning support.
“It’s not just the students,” added Morris, whose background is in education administration. “There will be separate workshops for their parents and guardians to figure out how to navigate Zoom and Google Classroom” and other computer programs.
In addition to its arts, photography, and music-based programming, ECO also promotes self-care and growth across generations. In a program called “Under the Cuts,” held in their new building when it housed a barbershop, ECO brought in a therapist to join the discussion of men there for a cut about invisible wounds and how to deal with them.
“We figured we couldn’t get brothers to the mental health professionals, so we’d bring therapists to the brothers,” Morris said.
ECO has also hosted a community forum on the city education system. It is a supporting participant in Black Brotherly Love, a positive male empowerment group formed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
In its youth employment programs like Young BULs (Bold Unstoppable Leader) and Nutrition Ambassadors, children can earn modest stipends helping in ECO’s food program and assisting seniors.
At the heart of its programs for young people is providing support and mentoring.
That’s what Gideon Green, 18, found.
Green was a junior at Girard College, a scholarship-funded residential educational program for low-income children from single-parent households in Philadelphia, when he got involved in ECO’s Bustlenomics program. Offered at Girard, it taught aspiring entrepreneurs about making a business plan, as well as setting financial goals while strengthening their math skills.
Through the program, Green said, he started his business — a line of do-rags that he hopes to develop into a clothing brand. He’s now taking classes online with Morehouse College and plans to major in mechanical engineering.
“Kyle really changed my life,” said Green, who now lives with his mom in Willingboro. “Just having a positive male role model in my life has been beneficial. Kyle definitely provided me with opportunities and guidance.”
Green has gone on to mentor younger people himself through ECO.
“I was able to see how kids can be positively influenced,” Green said. “We can make a change.”
ECO’s missions have also been important to Morris, said Trish Lowry, a founding board member.
“Kyle’s always had a passion for helping people since he was a little boy,” said Lowry, a diversity analyst with Cigna insurance.
She would know: She’s his mother. Morris’ father, K.D. Morris, a photographer and poet, is also on ECO’s board.
Lowry, 56, said that, as a parent, she was leery about her son quitting a full-time education job with benefits, but ECO was something he felt he needed to do, and she has been won over.
Having its own center, she believes, will help ECO’s outreach.
“It will give the ECO Foundation more visibility,” Lowry said. “It will increase awareness of what ECO has to offer.”
Morris said he intends this center to be just the start. He wants to open others, with North Philadelphia next. Morris, a gunshot survivor, want the centers to be havens.
“I really want people to know the ECO Center is the place they can go for their rock bottom,” Morris said. “When they hit their rock bottom, they don’t have to do anything else. They don’t have to harm anybody.”
He said he believes sometimes people just need support and a second chance.