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Meet the tireless Philadelphians who give their all to make the city safer | Helen Ubiñas

"Even if you can't reach the masses . . . make sure you have an impact on the people you can reach. "


Some of the people wielding the most impact in Philadelphia communities ravaged by gun violence, poverty, and negligence aren't necessarily the ones in the headlines. They're often not even the ones funded through the $48 million spent on antiviolence programs in the city. In 2017, Philadelphia saw 724 shootings, 138 of them fatal.

These are the people who often work alone, or with a small group of equally dedicated volunteers or family members who finance their efforts out of their own pockets or through community raffles or fish fries.​ They have full-time jobs, families. Bills and burdens of their own. Their efforts — from book-bag giveaways and Thanksgiving dinners to after-school programs and support groups — don't necessarily reach the masses.

When they measure their impact, they don't look at spreadsheets or budgets.  They look straight into the eyes of the mother who called on them to talk some sense into their child.  They remember the family members they sat and cried with after losing a loved one to gun violence.  They recall the young people who found their way to their art or chess or mentoring program — or even the corner store — and somehow, took the lessons or opportunities offered there to become more than just a statistic.

There are lots of these individuals out there, often under the radar and out of view of the powerful people and institutions who decide who gets seen and supported.

These are just a few of those I've come to know over the years, and others who were recommended by fellow Philadelphians when I asked who was putting in the real, hard work of building community in Philadelphia.​ Keep those names coming. You can email suggestions to me at

Carmen Pagan and Rosalind (Roz) Pichardo

Who they are: Pagan, whose brother was gunned down in 2016 in front of his mother's home, is the founder of S.O.M.B.E.R, Sisters of Murdered Brothers Emerging and Revolutionizing. Pichardo, whose brother was shot and killed in 2012, is the founder of Operation Save Our City.

What they're doing: They are on-the-ground warriors. On the streets, in City Hall, in court, the duo aren't just voices against gun violence, but advocates for families of homicide victims who need to be heard, and respected.

How you can help: Pagan and Pichardo, who works for the Kensington outreach center Prevention Point, are joining forces on Sept. 27 for a fund-raiser to benefit Richie's Kicks for Hope, named for Pagan's late brother, Richard Davila. The proceeds of the art exhibit will go toward sneakers that will be donated to Edison High School students. To attend or donate to their organizations or the fund-raiser, contact Pagan at 215-934-9189 or Pichardo at 856-745-6045 or find them on Facebook.

In their own words:"If you can't take care of what's going on outside of your door, how are you going to take care of anything else? If we don't take care of our people here in our neighborhood, then how can we take care of the rest of the city." — Carmen Pagan

Ryan Harris

Who he is: Harris, who cleans operating rooms at Jefferson Hospital, is the founder of As I Plant This Seed, a mentoring program that runs out of the Lenfest Center that began by giving away book bags in 2012. Through his organization, Harris also puts on youth-led plays and hosts annual book-bag and Christmas-gift giveaways.

What he's doing: As early as the second grade, when his teacher took students to visit Cheyney University — his eventual alma mater – Harris realized the importance of planting seeds of empowerment in young people. It's not really about a book bag or Christmas gifts, he says. Those are just a tool to make a connection. He tends to the children he mentors in Hunting Park with the same kind of care he received. Ask him why, and he'll tell you a story about a friend who was shot and killed not far from the center, only to see a young man dribble a basketball in his blood shortly after. "Education should be normal. Not that."​

How you can help: To donate to As I Plant This Seed, find Harris on Facebook or Instagram.

In his own words: "For someone to want you to be educated, that's true love … and that's how you break the cycle of poverty."

Terrez McCleary

Who she is: McCleary, a former corrections officer whose 21-year-old daughter Tamara Johnson was killed in 2009, is the founder of 2 Moms Bonded by Grief. She and cofounder Diane Williams, whose son was killed in 2010, hold weekly meetings for mothers who lost their children to gun violence. They meet at Dixon House, two blocks from where McCleary's daughter was killed. They also raise money to help families with funerals, helping to pay for flowers or clothing for the deceased.

What she's doing: McCleary knows that the needs of families of homicide victims are as much financial as they are emotional when  faced with the sudden death of a loved one. She also knows that combating gun violence will take sustained efforts from all Philadelphians, whether they've been directly affected by gun violence or not.

How you can help: To donate, you can send a check to Dixon House, made out to 2 Moms Bonded by Grief, 1920 S. 20th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19145.

In her own words: "I need people who are not victims to come out [to their weekly meetings] so you realize you don't want to be victims. I want you to see the pain, to feel the pain that we're feeling, so you could say, 'I don't want to be one of these moms and I don't want my child to be the cause of these mother's feeling this way.' " 

Aja Beech

Who is she: Beech, a freelance writer and single mom, has worked for numerous outreach organizations in the city. She is currently a literacy and family engagement coordinator at Sunrise of Philadelphia, an after-school program in South Philly. She also volunteers at West Kensington Ministry.

What she's doing: Most of the people on this list have started their own organizations. But it's just as important for Philadephians to support existing, grassroots organizations as it is to start them. Even when she isn't on the job, Beech — whose cousin was killed in a domestic-violence incident in 2001 — can often be found sitting beside families of homicide victims in court and standing in support of them during meetings and protests. In a word, she's an ally.

How you can help: Be more like Beech. Show up. Stand up. Listen. Collaborate. Understand that gun violence affects everyone.

In her own words: "Over the years, I've seen so many people get so motivated after a tragedy to do something, to be part of something. After a couple of years, they get burnt out because they don't get a lot of support."

Aniyah Ayres

Who she is: Aniyah is the 12-year-old cofounder of Aniyah's Mission, a foundation formed with her mother in honor of her father, Antonio Ayres, a local pastor who died when she was 2. Her mission: to follow in her father's footsteps and encourage kids to help themselves by helping their communities.

What she's doing: What isn't she doing? Not yet a teenager, she's done more for her community than most adults. Imagine what she'll be capable of when she's as old as the people running the city. She's gotten her fair share of press, but why shouldn't she? At 6, she started a water-ice stand, using the proceeds to help kids in underserved Philadelphia neighborhoods. At 8, she staged a "die-in" to protest police killings of unarmed black men. She donates book bags and school supplies to homeless shelters. She collects and donates coats to those in need. She feeds the hungry. She organizes an annual "Day of Peace" for kids. In response to the gun violence in Philadelphia this year, she recently held a city-wide Peace, Love and Water Ice tour to promote unity among her peers.

How you can help: To donate, go to her website at

In her own words: "We need more peace in this city."

Saroya Royster

Who she is: Royster, a teacher at Gratz High School, lost her 18-year-old cousin, Marquan Royster, to gun violence in  2015. Immediately after Royster's death, her family formed a scholarship fund, funded entirely by them, for a Sayre High School student. Marquan was killed just a few months before his graduation. The family also holds an annual block party in his name in West Philly, and Saroya is growing her own organization, My Sister's Keeper, to empower black women in Philadelphia.

What she's doing: It's more like what the whole Royster family is doing, which is honoring their loved one by finding ways to help other young people in Philadelphia. That includes Royster sharing her cousin's story every year since his death at the Sayre High School graduation.

How you can help:  To donate to the Marquan Royster scholarship fund, reach Royster through her Facebook page.

In her own words: "Even if you only reach the people in your community, that's still an impact. If you can pull five men or five women from your community and give them everything that they need to be successful, to change the narrative, you're now impacting the next group of people. … So even if you can't reach the masses, that's fine. Just make sure you have an impact on the people you can reach."

Stephen Gardner, Rakeem Jeter, and Kaliek Hayes

Who they are: Childhoods Lost Foundation, Chess Chat, The Black Boy Experience. Brothers Hayes and Gardner began Childhoods Lost in 2015. Their friend Jeter joined not long after. They put on plays and sponsor various community events, but chess — a game they all play well — is at the center of their nonprofit foundation. Young players meet at the Urban Art Gallery, a West Philadelphia community hub run by a full-time postal carrier.

What they are doing: All three know what it's like to lose childhoods to gun violence and incarceration. Gardner, who is a home health aide and Hayes, who works for a cleaning company, witnessed a close friend get shot and killed when they were barely teens. Hayes was 19 when he started serving five years in a federal prison on drug charges. Jeter, who works for the University of Pennsylvania, was in and out of prison for similar charges from 15 to 24. They use their experiences to connect with young people in their neighborhood.

How you can help: Donations can be made through their website at

In their own words: "There is a need. All of us know that, because we've been there. Every time we're in front of a young person, that's one young person who isn't out there doing something reckless or around other people doing reckless things. It doesn't matter if it's on a stage, or playing chess or in a school talking to them, hopefully we're leaving them with something. I just feel the more kids we can get in front of, the more we can prevent them from getting lost." — Kaliek Hayes