So much was going on last month when I visited the NoMo Foundation on North Broad Street.
Youngsters were getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in anticipation of going to see Meek Mill’s Expensive Pain concert at Madison Square Garden. Ricky Duncan, the organization’s chief executive, walked me around the nonprofit’s huge warehouse space, showing me multiple meeting rooms, computer equipment, a fitness area, a room filled with donated clothing, a ballroom with a chandelier for performances, and even a spare apartment where youngsters can take showers, wash clothing, and participate in cooking classes.
NoMo stands for New Options, More Opportunities, a six-year-old early-intervention program offering free after-school activities, tutoring, classes, summer camp, and mentoring. Last month, it was one of the first organizations to get a grant — $1 million — from the city as part of its plan to bolster community involvement in battling the gun violence epidemic and an out-of-control homicide rate.
I left after my visit feeling a bit overwhelmed by NoMo’s massive operation. I wondered, with so much going on, how effective it was at preventing violence and how something like that could even be measured.
Then I heard about Jayden Hawkins.
Hawkins, 19, began his association with NoMo a year ago, after the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. During the rioting that broke out, he had thrown a rock through NoMo’s front window, thinking he was breaking into an urban fashion store that formerly occupied the space.
Afterward, Duncan watched security video of the break-in and circulated it on social media. “... I don’t want them in prison,” he wrote in the postings. “I want them in our program, yes it’s obvious they need ‘New Options and More Opportunities.’”
After Hawkins saw it, he reached out online to Duncan to apologize and added, “I’m just dealing with a lot and needed a couple of extra dollars and I really thought this was the sneaker store but now I know what it was I honestly feel bad ...”
They arranged to meet. Duncan, who spent more than 23 years incarcerated, took one look and could see that Hawkins was in a really bad place. So, he took him to get a haircut and something to eat.
“He was very apologetic. He said that if he knew that it was a Black-led organization, trying to save kids ... he would have never have done it,” Duncan told me last month. “He said he was basically being an opportunist at the moment.”
Hawkins had been looking for new clothes for himself and his friends. Instead, he found a mentor and some much-needed direction.
Duncan enrolled him in NoMo’s classes and assigned him a case manager. He even helped him obtain a driver’s license. These days, Hawkins is “still amongst the family,” as Duncan put it. Hawkins, whose parents are in Jamaica, is deeply grateful for the intervention he got from the nonprofit; it helped him with his legal issues and gave him a place to live and put money in his pocket.
“I learned so many things, from painting to life skills, how to prepare for an interview, and just being accountable for my own actions,” Hawkins said. “I wish they would have came up with NoMo earlier when I was still in my childhood because I feel as I would never have been in the situations I was if I had some kind of guidance and a second place to call home.”
Getting to know Hawkins’ story helped me better appreciate the important role that NoMo plays in the lives of its young charges. NoMo is changing lives youngster by youngster. Duncan plans to use city grant money to greatly expand NoMo’s reach. He plans to open another location, this one south on Broad Street, by year’s end and a residential facility with 23 apartments in West Philadelphia along Lancaster Avenue by late 2022.
Thousands have participated in NoMo programming over the last six years. It’s unrealistic to think that NoMo can save each of them. But if NoMo can reach at least some — as it did with Hawkins — then any money invested in it is well-spent. I’m rooting for them.