Tootsie Iovine showed up at the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center two weeks ago bearing trays of crab salad and fried chicken, and something more: job offers, opportunities, second chances.
She's the owner of Tootsie's Hot & Cold Buffet, the salad bar at the Reading Terminal Market. She and other merchants donate food to the learning center. A recurring character in this column, Tootsie has a heart of gold.
She had an idea for Kevin Upshur.
To kids in Strawberry Mansion, Upshur is simply "Mr. Kev." Ask the kids about him and they'll tell you the same thing: A lot of people in their neighborhood say they care. Mr. Kev really does.
A counselor at the Youth Study Center, Upshur operates the learning center out of a space that was once a family bar. For a decade he has run it on his own dime, and on heart and prayer and donations.
The kids in Strawberry Mansion told me the same thing: It is a safe haven. From drugs, violence, fear. A place of hope and love in a neighborhood where both are at a premium.
Tootsie had brought the food to the center for a party on Nov. 10. Upshur and the kids were celebrating a large donation - the center had its moment this summer during the Democratic National Convention. While reporting on Philly gun violence, the Huffington Post made a powerful film about Upshur, 57, and the young people he helps.
And the donations came in. GoFundMe gave $2,000 to an online campaign to renovate the center. And this month, Upshur appeared on The Rachael Ray Show, where he learned of a $25,000 gift from Beneficial Bank.
The money will help keep the lights on, the doors open. And, if there's enough left, expand the reading programming.
But there is so much struggle, and no amount of money can buy the young people at the center what they need the most: jobs.
That's where Tootsie came in.
She knew the Terminal would be mobbed all week with Thanksgiving. Her brothers, Vinnie and Jimmy, run Iovine Bros. Produce and would need baggers, sorters.
The Terminal already works with the center, with merchants offering classes on cooking and healthy food every other Wednesday night.
Now, the kids could earn some money. Maybe even score full-time work. Tootsie could recommend them to other merchants.
Don't be afraid to dream, Upshur tells the kids, but don't ever be too proud to take a job.
More than a dozen kids signed on. Some, like Kadeem Warren, who is 20, looked at the holiday work as a stepping-stone.
He had heard of the Reading Terminal, but had never been. He had been going to the center since he was 14, new to the neighborhood and bullied. Mr. Kev introduced him to reading for pleasure. Kadeem is planning on trade school to become a carpenter.
Be prepared, Tootsie had told them, it's going to be a madhouse. Smile, work hard, and know that early is on time and on time is late.
The crowds made Kadeem nervous at first. He settled in, smiled. Now, he walks the Terminal during his breaks, taking it all in. "This is the best job I ever had," he said Tuesday.
For Marcquis Graham, who is 21, the Thanksgiving job is another hopeful step in rebuilding his life. At Strawberry Mansion High School, Marcquis was a standout athlete and a student advocate. He was even the subject of a 2013 documentary, Rise and Shine, which told the story of two high school students, one in America, one in Africa.
Then he left school. One night in 2014, the young father of two tried to rob a Rita's Italian Ice with a gun. He did a year. He got out, earned his high school diploma, found work at a soul food shop, and went back to the center, back to Mr. Kev.
On Tuesday, he was working the checkout line with Tootsie, joking with holiday shoppers.
"It's a blessing," he said of the job. "It keeps me out of trouble. It keeps me energized. It keeps me rolling."
Then, with a smile, he motioned for the next shopper.