It was Parkway Center City Middle College 10th graders vs. the Philadelphia police, and both sides were coming in hot.

The sophomores had already scored a huge basketball upset by besting the seemingly unbeatable juniors, and then their teachers, to compete for the big game against the cops inside the Community College of Philadelphia athletics center.

It was all in good fun, and for a good cause: highlighting the impact of gun violence on young people in Philly, building relationships between police and students, and raising money for Moms Bonded by Grief to buy Christmas gifts for children of murder victims.

Students and faculty from Parkway Center City Middle College, members of the Moms Bonded by Grief group, and officers from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Ninth District pose for a group photo after their basketball tournament.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Students and faculty from Parkway Center City Middle College, members of the Moms Bonded by Grief group, and officers from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Ninth District pose for a group photo after their basketball tournament.

Even before Monday, when Parkway students raised a couple hundred at the door with a $1 admission, they had already surpassed their online fundraising goal with more than $1,500 for the grateful moms.`

Talk turned early to making the tournament a yearly citywide event.

“I think it would be incredible,” said Police Community Relations Officer Jesse O’Shea, who jumped at the chance to bring his ragtag team of Ninth District officers to the school to play the students. “We want to make these connections. All of us here want this.”

O’Shea was already envisioning how it might go: All police districts around the city would participate and play teams made up of students from their area. Like Monday’s event, there would be speakers and cheerleaders and step teams. Picture it, Philly: A Thanksgiving-week tradition.

I love the idea, and not just because as I looked around that gym, I was feeling admittedly sentimental at how beautifully small the city suddenly felt in that room.

Two years ago, I wrote about Parkway students with whom I’ve kept in touch as they continue to grow into passionate anti-violence activists.

Every other month, it seems, I’m writing about one of the incredible mothers who attend the Moms Bonded by Grief support group.

Two months ago, I wrote about Julian and Julius Whitehead, twin brothers who had been shot on the same day last year.

And here they all were.

Former Parkway students, twin brothers who barely survived their gunshot injuries last year, Julius (left) and Julian Whitehead (right), talk to members of the Moms Bonded by Grief support group as students from Parkway Center City Middle College play each other, their teachers, then a team of officers from the Philadelphia Police Department's Ninth District.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Former Parkway students, twin brothers who barely survived their gunshot injuries last year, Julius (left) and Julian Whitehead (right), talk to members of the Moms Bonded by Grief support group as students from Parkway Center City Middle College play each other, their teachers, then a team of officers from the Philadelphia Police Department's Ninth District.

In one corner, the moms seemed to form a protective circle around the twins, and talked about their shared trauma. They encouraged the brothers to share their stories, to help others but also to try to lighten their own burden.

The twins, former Parkway students, were invited to the event by current students as a show of support and solidarity against violence. Many of the students wore T-shirts with statistics on the back that told the story of a majority of students witnessing a shooting or losing friends and family to guns.

A "Play for Peace" game T-shirt cites grim statistics for the student body at Parkway Center City Middle College as they play basketball as a fund-raiser. Among the facts: "63% have witnessed a shooting and 50% have lost friends to gun violence. "
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A "Play for Peace" game T-shirt cites grim statistics for the student body at Parkway Center City Middle College as they play basketball as a fund-raiser. Among the facts: "63% have witnessed a shooting and 50% have lost friends to gun violence. "

On the court and in the bleachers were students who only two years ago had been struggling to reconcile the overwhelming support and solidarity shown to survivors of mass shootings around the country, with the minimal attention and concern paid to their fears and pain as gun violence and death gripped their communities. They were now not just empowered, but empowering.

Everyone in one space, connected by a shared goal to make their communities better, to make our city better.

I was beyond grateful.

Former Parkway students, twin brothers who barely survived their gunshot injuries last year, Julian (left) and Julius Whitehead (right), talk to students from Parkway Center City Middle College in the gym at Community College of Philadelphia Nov. 25, 2019, during a tournament where the students play each other, their teachers, and a team of police officers from the Ninth District led by Community Relations Officer Jesse O'Shea (blue jacket, left) who helped organize the event.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Former Parkway students, twin brothers who barely survived their gunshot injuries last year, Julian (left) and Julius Whitehead (right), talk to students from Parkway Center City Middle College in the gym at Community College of Philadelphia Nov. 25, 2019, during a tournament where the students play each other, their teachers, and a team of police officers from the Ninth District led by Community Relations Officer Jesse O'Shea (blue jacket, left) who helped organize the event.

Back on the court, things were getting heated. Both sides were holding their own.

“We’re going to need oxygen pretty soon,” quipped Capt. Michael Hooven. His fellow officers joked that they were taking it easy on the kids, but their labored breathing told a different story.

The game had to be cut short for time, which prompted O’Shea to good-naturedly make the sign of the cross.

“We’ll live to tell the story.…”

In the end, the score was Parkway 20, Philadelphia Police 13. But that didn’t seem to matter as police officers and students shook hands and congratulated one another on a good game.

Until next year, they promised.

Things can often feel mighty bleak in our city. But as dire and divided as Philly is at times, it’s important for all of us to remember that there are good things going on in every neighborhood, and that there are people who care deeply about the city and every single day are fighting to make it better.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.