It was Joyce Parker's final wish.
As the original Miss Tootsie — whose premier soul-food restaurant at 13th and South bore her nickname — lay dying of pancreatic cancer last year, she made her son, Keven, promise to "get the work done."
Keven understood exactly what she meant.
Giving back was always in Joyce Parker's DNA. Even before there was a Miss Tootsie's — which Keven has since expanded and transformed from a neighborhood spot into the luxe Miss Tootsie's Restaurant Bar Lounge — Joyce would find a way to help those in need. She'd buy Easter clothes for a neighbor's children, pay for a friend's screen door, quietly help a pal out with rent. This her son realized as he listened to folks testify at his mother's funeral in July, when 2,000 turned out to pay their respects.
It was affirmation that Parker's mission extended beyond running the Keven Parker Co., a successful restaurant, catering, and lifestyle enterprise that trains employees and awards college scholarships.
"I was doing a lot of different things," he says, "but I needed to spread more love."
And that's when it came to him. The idea for the Spread the Love Foundation.
On the fourth Monday of every month, Parker and members of his restaurant hop aboard the "Spread the Love" bus to seek out folks on whom to bestow random acts of kindness, as Miss Joyce did. Usually, they focus on seniors, but anyone stands to be a blessed beneficiary. Since January, Parker and company have paid electric bills, picked up the costs of car repairs, purchased the wardrobes of women transitioning from welfare to work. Once he even treated a group of city employees standing in line at a lunch truck to a free meal.
Parker is always there, spreading the love firsthand. And for now, most of his acts of kindness are coming out of his pocket.
"I could have this be just a charitable organization, but I want to know where the money is going," explains Parker, who's in his 40s. "I want it to penetrate the right communities and the right people. "
On a recent afternoon, Parker and his team hopped out of his vehicle at the Wal-Mart parking lot in South Philly as if they were on a superhero mission. Shoppers didn't know it, but they were about to get Tasered with a megadose of love.
Sixx King (real name) was the gregarious Robin to Parker's low-key Batman. He's also a filmmaker who happens to be Parker's best friend and business partner. For operations like these, King, 35, calls himself "Mr. Love."
King scopes out Wal-Mart and identifies the first targets — Pauline Bolden, 68, and her mother, Geneva Dawson, 85, who are standing in the checkout line.
They approach. The women eye them suspiciously.
"We're here to spread the love," King proclaims. "We want to pay for your items."
"What?" Bolden asks, confused. "What do I have to sign?"
"Nothing," Parker replies. "All we ask is you pay it forward."
King specializes in hugs. Not only because he's a lovable guy, but because he knows every hug helps dispel the black-man-as-thug image.
"It's a subculture we have to tear down," King says. "The good men — and there are plenty of us — need to step up. We have to do more because we are more."
The team hits the pharmacy counter, where Parker paid for the prescriptions of Janine Vinci, 60, a public-interest attorney, out on disability.
Her purchases may have come to $43, "but you made me feel like a million bucks," a grateful Vinci tells Parker.
"What you're doing is beautiful," says Lou Coleman, 61, after Parker picked up the tab for Coleman and his sister, Toni, 56. "My mother died six years ago. She used to feed everybody in the Richard Allen Homes. I still give out plaques in her honor."
Parker nods. "That's what it's all about," he agrees. "Legacy."