I was so not Alivia Whitaker.
Alivia, who lives in Fishtown and is all of 7, sold lemonade last year to raise money to buy back-to-school stuff for needy kids. The $100 she earned paid for 10 backpacks fully loaded with school supplies.
This Saturday (Oct. 6), the mission of Alivia's latest lemonade sale is to pay for bus fare for Philly kids who live too close to their public schools to qualify for the free SEPTA passes given by the School District to students who live farther away.
The district helps tons of Philly public-, charter-, and private-school students get to and from school at no personal cost to families. About 40,000 first to sixth graders ride actual school buses each day, says district spokesperson Lee Whack. An additional 63,000 or so seventh to 12th graders receive district-issued SEPTA TransPasses, which are good for free transit on weekdays between 5:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. The passes cost about $35 million, most of which is reimbursed by the state through a process that is (trust me) too complicated to break down in this column.
To be eligible for the passes, students must live farther than 1.5 miles from school, because the district has to draw a line somewhere. Currently, about 34,000 students are ineligible for the passes.
"We're a large school district with a lot of competing costs," says Whack, pointing out that the district is also on the hook for transporting Philly kids to charter and private schools. "We have to prioritize transportation for students who have longer commutes."
For kids who live a few blocks from school, the policy is no problem, obviously. For kids who live closer to that 1.5-mile mark, the trek can be an ordeal on a cold, snowy, or rainy day.
So, no biggie, right? Just hop on SEPTA for a day. Unless, of course, the cost of the fare is unaffordable, which it can be for low-income students, which the city has a lot of. Even in nice weather, a kid would still need to leave home pretty early to arrive at school in time for the free breakfast he or she may rely upon.
For some, says Robert Serrano, the walk takes them through sketchy neighborhoods and opioid encampments they'd rather ride through, if only they could. So their parents drop them off on their own way to work, but that means kids can arrive at 6:30 a.m., before school doors even open.
"Some kids wind up just staying home," says Serrano, a Spanish teacher at Penn Treaty School in Fishtown, whose sixth- to 12th-grade students hail from neighborhoods as diverse as Fishtown, Kensington, North Philly, and Old Richmond. "It's a real issue."
(If it's a real issue at Penn Treaty, I'm betting it's an issue at other schools, too. If you have a tale to share, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Serrano described the situation to Alivia's mom, Venise Whitaker, a constituent-services rep for City Council President Darrell Clarke. She wound up discussing it later with Alivia.
Her daughter's solution: Use a lemonade sale to help kids at Penn Treaty buy SEPTA Key cards (which can be loaded with credit for $2 rides, a discount from the usual $2.50 fare).
"What can I say? She's a great kid," says Whitaker, who will donate the funds to the nonprofit Friends of Penn Treaty School, which will oversee the purchase of SEPTA cards.
There'll be break-dance performers, music and DJ, face painting, crafts, and guest speakers. If you're in the area and feeling thirsty, stop by for a refreshing cup of lemonade, poured by Alivia.
Whose cause is almost as sweet as she is.