When Charles Reyes was growing up in North Philadelphia, the adults at Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School helped give his life shape and direction.
So when he ended up back at Dobbins as an adult, this time as the community schools coordinator, Reyes felt like it was meant to be. He took the job to heart, focusing on increasing the community’s access to healthy foods, improving the school climate, and connecting students and adults to job training.
To say that Reyes has succeeded would be an understatement. Last week, he was honored on national television for his work, and was surprised by celebrities with a vacation for his family and a large donation to help feed hungry Philadelphians. Inspired by Reyes, Mayor Jim Kenney declared June 13 “Give Back, Make an Impact Day."
“To watch him work is magical,” said Leah Russell, a Dobbins teacher who works with Reyes. “We are witnessing greatness.”
Not bad for a kid from 30th and Lehigh, Reyes said with a laugh.
“I’ve never won anything outside of a basketball at an amusement park,” said Reyes. “I do this from the heart, not for recognition. I would never have dreamed of anything like this.”
Reyes, 44, graduated from Dobbins in 1993 and spent 17 years in the behavioral health field. Three years ago, he heard about a Kenney administration plan to designate a number of schools as community schools, using proceeds from the sweetened-drinks tax to put a city employee in each. That worker would be charged with assessing needs, connecting students and community members to resources, and generally handling nonacademic tasks, allowing educators to focus on teaching and learning.
It seemed like a tall order, but Reyes, who was active in the Dobbins alumni association, was excited by the prospect. He got the job and quickly made himself indispensable both to the vocational school’s 700 students and to the community at large, principal Toni Damon said.
Thanks to Reyes, there are weekly “Fresh for All” produce giveaways in conjunction with Philabundance, with folks lining up on Lehigh Avenue before Dobbins’ doors open. Everybody knows about “Get Fit Saturdays," when the school opens its doors to anyone who wants to stop by for free yoga, basketball, or babysitting training, and frequent seminars on things like first-time home ownership and healthy cooking.
Reyes is a fixture there, with his wife, Sherita, and five children, ages 6 to 24, in tow.
Kenney recalled the first time he stopped by Dobbins on a Saturday.
“The school was vibrant and populated and productive on a weekend in North Central Philadelphia, and that’s exactly what we were trying to do when we established the community schools program,” the mayor said. “And Charles doesn’t put himself out front. He’s extremely humble, and he never complains."
He’s a role model to students, walking the hallways as the day gets started, standing at the doorway at dismissal, asking kids how they are doing and what they need.
And when they tell him about gaps in their lives, Reyes delivers — from helping outfit a young man for the prom to finding a place to sleep for a student experiencing homelessness.
“Some people probably wouldn’t care, but he cared enough to make sure I had somewhere to sleep,” said Tamera Taylor, a recent Dobbins grad.
Musa Andrews, another Dobbins student, said: “He became that male role model that I never had in my life.”
Reyes hit the big time thanks to Good Morning America, which put out a national call for outstanding dads who give back to their community. Hilary Stiebel, Philabundance’s programs manager, nominated Reyes. Then came the ruse: Reyes was told that Giant Food Stores was filming a commercial about one of Dobbins’ Fresh For All giveaways. He reported to school at 6:30 a.m. Thursday to organize the larger-than-usual amount of food.
Reyes was in the middle of moving two jars of spaghetti sauce and a box of pasta when the morning show’s T.J. Holmes burst into the Dobbins gym, shook Reyes’ hand, blindfolded him, and told him he was in for a surprise. A waiting limousine took him to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the blindfold was removed and Reyes ran right into GMA host Michael Strahan, whom Reyes gripped in a big bear hug. He then saw his wife, his children, and a host of friends and family, all of whom were in on the surprise.
It still feels unreal, said Reyes. The Aruba vacation will be nice, but he’s also looking forward to resuming Get Fit Saturdays in the fall, and into making more connections to benefit Dobbins students and the school’s community.