A FREE TRIP TO Africa?
Yo, what kind of scam is that? That's what I thought when I first heard what the d'Zert Club does. It sounded like a deal that was way too good to be true.
But it's the real deal. Since 1998, the d'Zert Club has been taking groups of youngsters to explore Africa the way some groups take kids to ride roller coasters at Hershey Park.
For their first trip, the d'Zert Club went to Senegal's Goree Island, visiting the Door of No Return, through which slaves passed on their way to the Americas. They also visited Accra, the bustling capital city of Ghana.
D'Zert Club founders Ali and Helen Salahuddin, of Mount Airy, are on a crusade to bust myths about Africa and to teach black and Latino youngsters about their heritage.
"Our goal is to get as many there as possible," explained Helen, 66. Each trip averages about 200 kids and adults, including parents and chaperones. About 3,000 kids and adults have participated so far.
To be eligible, youngsters must be between ages 7 and 14, complete the 27-month d'Zert Club educational program about the African-American experience, maintain a C-average and participate in fundraising.
From what I hear about these trips, they can be the highlight of a kid's life. Before going to Senegal back in 1998, Mercedes Munoz was an unhappy 17-year-old uncertain about college.
"That trip was life-changing for me," she told me. "It sparked something inside of me that wasn't there before."
Munoz, now 33, was so moved by what she learned about Senegal's high illiteracy rate and the difficulties that children have attending school, she returned home determined to further her education. She got an associate's degree at the Community College of Philadelphia, followed by a bachelor's in psychology from Temple University and, later, a nursing degree.
Today, she works as a psychiatric nurse.
"Every single degree I've ever gotten, I've contacted Helen to tell her," Munoz said last week. "They are truly the only reasons why my outlook on life has changed. They've had such a profound effect on me."
The d'Zert Club started out as a place for teens to let loose and have fun. Helen, an entertainment lawyer who grew up in Mount Airy, got the idea from a day club she visited in New York City that served desserts to teenyboppers on Saturday afternoons. Up-and-coming performers provided entertainment.
Helen figured that the same kind of event would work here. With the help of Jeff Townes, also known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, the d'Zert Club opened in 1993 and quickly became a popular Saturday hangout for kids "too old for Chuck E. Cheese's and too young to get into a nightclub."
Housed inside what used to be Illusions Nightclub, at 7th and Arch streets, the d'Zert Club was open every Saturday afternoon.
When they were in town, rappers such as Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J and Public Enemy's Chuck D would stop by to mingle with fans. In the beginning, Helen served pastries and other desserts - hence the club's name.
"We started getting people pulling up in buses with 50 or 60 kids," recalled Ali, now 67. "It really became very popular."
Things began to change, though, after Ali, former owner of a fish-importing business, traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March organized in 1995 by Minister Louis Farrakhan, who exhorted participants to do something meaningful for their communities.
Ali returned home fired up.
"That's when we really started talking about, 'what more can we do for these children,' " Ali recalled. "We said, 'Let's do a field trip.' By talking to them, we could see the children really didn't know their history."
The Salahuddins, who have five children between them from prior marriages, decided to start taking yearly d'Zert Club field trips. They had planned to visit Savannah, Ga., but before they could organize that, the Salahuddins took their first trip to Africa with a group organized by local black AM-radio station WHAT.
"Needless to say, that was a life-altering experience," said Ali. "When we touched down in Senegal, our lives changed forever. We said, 'We need to take our children to Africa.' "
Meanwhile, management had changed at Illusions and the d'Zert Club lost its hangout spot. The club never did get back in the party business. Instead, in 1997, the Salahuddins began organizing what they called the African Genesis Institute, to help raise awareness of African history among young people.
The late Edward W. Robinson, who in 2004 helped the Philadelphia School District put African studies into its curriculum, helped them with it.
Their debut voyage in 1998 was one that the Salahuddins laughingly call "the trip from hell."
One boy was so freaked out at the prospect of flying, he wouldn't get on the plane. Once the students landed in Senegal, some children refused to get off the bus for fear of soiling their athletic shoes on the dirt roads.
Chickens they were served were smaller than what the Philly kids were used to, so they refused to eat it, claiming it was "pigeon."
The d'Zert Club has since tweaked the program to require participants to complete three semesters of prep work at classes held at the African American Museum of Philadelphia before becoming eligible to travel to Africa. In addition to student fundraising, trips are paid for with sponsorships from local politicians, businesses and nonprofits.
For the Salahuddins, it's a labor of love.
"People told us we were crazy. [They said] 'I wouldn't be spending time with these badass kids,' " Ali said. "But every African-American child needs to experience this."