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Cold and soggy crowdsourcing for a North Philly mentorship program that works | Helen Ubiñas

"We're trying to change lives," said Ryan Harris, founder of As I Plant This Seed.

Ryan Harris, founder of As I Plant This Seed mentoring program, vowed to camp out near a North Philadelphia traffic medium until he was able to raise $30,000 for a new center.
Ryan Harris, founder of As I Plant This Seed mentoring program, vowed to camp out near a North Philadelphia traffic medium until he was able to raise $30,000 for a new center.Read moreHelen Ubiñas

The ink on the signs was starting to run. The cardboard warped from the steady rain. Ryan Harris' clothes were soaked through, and he hadn't eaten for 12 hours, which is torture when you consider that he was surrounded by the aromas of multiple fast food joints and a couple of halal food trucks.

But Harris, who had come to this sliver of a North Philadelphia traffic median at Hunting Park and Broad bright and early Monday, was on a mission.

His vow: to camp out — no sleep, no food, no surrender — until passersby helped him raise $30,000 for his mentoring program to find a new headquarters. It's called As I Plant This Seed.

"I made a pledge to stand out here to give my people a fighting chance," he said.  "I'll be here until we raise every single dime."

Throughout the day, his supporters came and went. They waved signs, and called out to truckers who blew their horns in support and drivers who scrambled to give them coins and bills. When people didn't have cash on hand, Harris let them donate through an app he'd set up, or directed them to his GoFundMe page.

"I got you! I got you!" promised a woman in a white Chrysler who was rushing to work.

Twelve hours later, when I returned to check on his progress, Harris had made half his goal. The temperature had dropped. The rain fell harder. But neither he nor his supporters holding soggy "I believe" signs seemed deterred. Success was a given, they told me. They just needed to put in the work.

In August, I asked readers which people do good work out of view of the powerful Philly institutions that decide who gets funded — I'll be doing that again, so heads up — and more than a few people pointed to Harris.

He holds down a full-time job, cleaning operating rooms at Jefferson Hospital. In 2012 he started a mentoring program that began with a book bag giveaway and has grown to stage youth-led plays, and encourage financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

When I went to meet him, Harris' plans for the program were already outgrowing their space at the Lenfest Center in Hunting Park.

"Ultimately, I want to show these kids that there is more, that they should want something past the eight-block radius of their neighborhood," he said. "We're trying to change lives."

Nyjah Smith, who is 15, credits his program for her transformation.

"It changed the way I feel and think," she said as she stood on the median holding a sign. "It changed my spirit overall. I'm a different person. Ryan's program shaped me to be the person I am today. Now I'm a poet, I'm part of different programs. I have plans. I have a lot of plans for my future."

With an endorsement like that, the people and organizations who hold the purse strings in this city should be lining up to help. But while Philadelphia continues to evaluate the millions spent on violence prevention programs, Harris and his supporters turned to the people for support.

"Our community doesn't do enough sometimes," said Natasha Fletcher, who volunteers with Harris' nonprofit. She'd taken a personal day on Tuesday to help. "They can't sit back and complain. They have to come out here and support."

Sometime during the night, someone had set up a tent to offer Harris and his supporters a little shelter. As the sun rose on Tuesday, Harris and a couple of supporters clasped hands and prayed. A couple of hours later, someone came by with gloves, and little by little, more people began showing up with fresh signs — the words "I BELIEVE" printed big and bold on new cardboard.

More than 24 hours in, Harris conceded that his body was a little weary, but added that his spirit soared.

It was just like his sweatshirt and the signs read, he said with an improbable smile.

"I believe."