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Philly Fellows help and stay local

In her twist on the popular post-college-graduation year of service, Kathleen Abels is working to end homelessness in Philadelphia from behind a desk.

In her twist on the popular post-college-graduation year of service, Kathleen Abels is working to end homelessness in Philadelphia from behind a desk.

The 22-year-old Haverford College graduate is coordinating outreach for Project HOME. The closest she gets to those she is trying to help is the cafe downstairs from her office - staffed by formerly homeless adults - where she eats lunch several times a week.

Nonprofit staff "aren't the glamorous service workers," Abels said. "But these are things that need to be done."

The White Plains, N.Y., native and political science major is one of 20 members of the 2009-10 class of Philly Fellows, an AmeriCorps-sponsored program in its fourth year. Fellows spend a year giving back to the city by working behind the scenes for local nonprofits; this year's class began work Aug. 3.

In addition to a job, the fellows receive a stipend, benefits, and free housing. They live together in four houses spread across the city.

"Right now, I can't really imagine myself anywhere else," Abels said. "I hope to be here for a long time."

Philly Fellows was started in 2006 by two Haverford College alumni hoping to stem Philadelphia's "brain drain," in which talented students at local colleges leave for other cities after graduation.

Close friends at Haverford, founders Tim Ifill, 28, and Matt Joyce, 28, graduated in 2003 with a dream to stay and find work in Philadelphia. They were inspired by Haverford House, a program run by the college that sponsors recent Haverford graduates for working at a local nonprofit for one year and living together in Philadelphia.

"We were a couple of 23-year-old kids who didn't know what we were doing," Ifill said. "But once they heard what we were doing, people signed on and gave us their support."

They teamed up with AmeriCorps - the national service group that provides the fellows with a monthly stipend of about $900 - and promoted the program on area campuses.

Sixty-four soon-to-be graduates applied for slots in the first class. The 15 fellows selected in 2006 represented just four area colleges. The program has grown more competitive, with 257 applicants vying for spots in this year's class.

The 2009-10 fellows represent 10 local colleges and hail from hometowns across the country. Their college majors are just as diverse, ranging from political science and marketing to French and theater.

There are no prerequisites to apply, except for an interest in giving back to Philadelphia through the nonprofit sector, said program spokeswoman Jenn Rineer, herself a former fellow.

The fellows are not the only ones sticking around after they graduate. The brain drain, which had city officials worried at the start of the decade, is slowing, said Steve Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

A 2004 study by the local Knowledge Industry Partnership found that while Philadelphia was holding on to nearly two-thirds of college graduates, only around 29 percent of individuals who were not from the area originally were choosing to stay. To compare, Boston has a rate of 42 percent for that cohort.

Although no studies exist that put a number on how many graduates are staying today, anecdotal evidence suggests a shift in attitude.

"Our quality of life at a reasonable price has made it not a bad place to be," Wray said. He cited neighborhoods such as Manayunk and Center City as among the many reasons young people are choosing to settle here.

Fellow Kevin Moran, 22, agreed, saying he found Philadelphia to be far less expensive than New York, especially for someone working in the typically low-paying nonprofit world.

"It's becoming more difficult . . . to find jobs that can sustain a comfortable lifestyle," the Villanova University alumnus said. "Economic conditions are possibly helping in encouraging people to stay in Philadelphia."

Moran, who studied marketing, will spend the year doing outreach for the Fairmount Community Development Corp., which runs events and coordinates development strategies for the Fairmount neighborhood.

He said Philly Fellows offers leadership training and other professional development, making it a useful step on the way to a career.

The communal living is also a plus for Moran, who is living with three other fellows in Northern Liberties.

"There are great cooks in the house, which is great for me, since I'm not one," he said.

Unlike community service-oriented programs like City Year, most of the fellows are placed in communications or development jobs like Moran's and Abels'. Putting graduates behind the scenes is at the core of Philly Fellows' mission, Ifill said.

"We really wanted our guys to be on a steppingstone to a career in nonprofits," he said. "They learn a wider variety of skills than if they were on the front lines of service."

Participating nonprofits pay $12,500 to be part of Philly Fellows, which goes toward the fellows' housing and benefits. The nonprofit also receives private grants to supplement the funds from AmeriCorps.

Timothy Clair, executive director of the Fairmount CDC, said Philly Fellows allowed him to hire Moran at a fraction of the usual cost. The economic downturn, he said, made hiring someone at a full salary impossible.

"For getting a full-time employee who is a college graduate, who is smart and energetic, and ready to do good work, obviously you couldn't hire someone for that amount," Clair said.

Clair said he hopes Moran can get the word out about the Fairmount CDC's programs, which in turn would bring in more funding. More money, Clair said, would let him hire Moran when his year of service ends.