HANG ON to your handbag, Claire; hang on to it tight, and be careful if you go to Philadelphia.

That, in so many words, is the advice a high-school guidance counselor in Houston gave to Claire Robertson-Kraft in 2000, when she decided that she wanted to attend the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn was a fine school, sure, but the city? It was dangerous, dirty, depressing.

Robertson-Kraft's Philadelphia story could have stopped there, before it had barely started, because of the negative perceptions that so thoroughly defined the city - in the eyes of outsiders and natives - for so long.

But she moved here anyway, gloomy reputation be damned.

Here's why you should care: For the last three years, Robertson-Kraft has served as the chairwoman of Young Involved Philadelphia (YIP), a volunteer organization with a mission to show people how to lead, how to connect and how to find ways to improve their neighborhoods and schools.

Robertson-Kraft, an energetic, glass-half-full type, has been the tip of YIP's spear, encouraging people from different walks of life to come together and help redefine the city's image - and define its future.

"She's a complete superstar, an amazing connector of people," said Sophie Bryan, City Councilman Bill Green's chief of staff.

Bryan said she got to know Robertson-Kraft while working with YIP on education initiatives. The two became fast friends.

"Claire has a fierce intellect," Bryan said. "She's also one of these people - if you've ever seen her in a meeting - who can make an entire audience feel excited and empowered to do something."

Indeed, Robertson-Kraft, 30, often finds herself in front of large crowds.

In the fall, YIP held its second annual "State of Young Philly," a two-week series of workshops that brought together hundreds of young minds and members of local government to discuss everything from ways for people to become involved in their communities - really, how does one become a ward leader? - to strategies for people who want to form education start-ups.

In the spring, YIP will hold a board-prep program, which the organization said has trained more than 100 young people to serve on boards of the area's nonprofit organizations.

"We're starting to see people of our generation become leaders," said Robertson-Kraft, a Center City resident who is pursuing a doctorate at Penn in education policy.

The irony that she is the one leading the charge for young people to embrace and change Philly is not lost on her.

"I originally came here in spite of Philadelphia, not because of it," Robertson-Kraft said.

As an undergrad at Penn, she said, she initially rarely ventured outside the school's boundaries.

A double-major in urban studies forced her to learn more about the neighborhoods that existed to the west of University City.

Then, in 2003, she landed the first internship ever offered at YIP. Her knowledge of the city, its neighborhoods and its positive attributes grew exponentially.

"The city actually has a tremendous amount to offer," Robertston-Kraft said. "It just has a perception problem. It hasn't always done a great job of marketing itself."

Robertson-Kraft left the city after graduating from Penn and went to Texas, working for Teach for America. She came back to Philly in 2007 and rekindled her relationship with YIP.

She quickly earned the admiration of younger, reform-minded politicians like newly elected City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer, both of whom seem far from the long-entrenched political elites who are gathering today at the Pennsylvania Society, in New York City.

(Robertson-Kraft isn't attending.)

Schmidt said he decided to resign from his job in the Government Accountability Office and run for office after attending a YIP meeting in 2006.

He noted that he and Singer - like Robertston-Kraft and many other members of YIP - are transplants to the area.

"There's this sense of knowing that things can be better, of not being locked into thinking that nothing can change," Schmidt said.

Robertson-Kraft said she expects to hand over the reins of YIP to another up-and-comer in another year or so, and hopes to stay in the city once she gets her doctorate.

"I'd like to start my own organization and deal with education reform and evaluation issues," she said.

"This is a great place to be a young professional."