Sister Mary Scullion and Tanisha Clanton are old friends, across-the-street neighbors in North Philadelphia, and community leaders. Two weeks ago, Tanisha won the fourth annual Fran Egan Civic Award, named for the late state legislator and city administrator, a longtime champion of Project HOME, the homeless-advocacy network.
Tanisha claimed the honor being all of 19, a sophomore at Albright College in Reading a world away, the first in her family to go beyond high school, but not, she promises, the last. Sister Mary is, well, Sister Mary, cofounder and executive director of Project HOME. She's a gift to the city. Being with her is like Christmas every day.
Tanisha was homeless the first 10 years of her life, her mother then an addict. "I moved a lot. I know Philadelphia like the back of my hand," says Tanisha. "I was a very troubled child. Nobody ever believes me."
True, nobody believes her. Tanisha exudes quiet confidence and strength, calm. Sister Mary says, "She's a natural leader. She's very articulate, with great common sense."
At age 14, she launched Tanisha's Spectacular Water Ice Stand in Rittenhouse Square on summer Saturdays, which blossomed into the Project HOME Marketplace selling T-shirts, cookies, basically anything. The students, growing to 10 in all, earned almost $5,000 a season, paid themselves, reinvested, organized on Excel spreadsheets, having trained in the Honickman Entrepreneurial Program. Harold Honickman, the bottling tycoon, was Tanisha's mentor. All four marketplace founders, once homeless, are now in college.
Nine years ago, Tanisha, her mother and stepfather, and two younger siblings were among the first residents at Rowan Homes, an apartment complex where families get help gaining stability and skills, and where they still live. "When people are given a meaningful reason to succeed, they make their way," Sister Mary says.
Tanisha's mother, Tanya, has been clean and sober since the move. She works two jobs. "My mother is my role model. I look up to her in so many ways," her eldest child says. "If she didn't take the steps, and go through the process, accomplishing everything she's done, I wouldn't have done all this. She changed me." The family, through everything, stayed intact, always together.
The Egan Award brought tears, and $2,000. She receives grants from Albright, where tuition and board annually top $40,000, but not a full scholarship. She works 20 hours a week in the cafeteria. "Yep, I'm a lunch lady," she says, sporting a wide smile. Though she plans to save most of the prize money, Tanisha will apply $500 for books and a break from food duty to concentrate on her studies. Her dream is to teach art to Philadelphia high school students. Last summer, she interned at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, working in the education department. Her passion is drawing and, though still one herself, mentoring teens.
"Tanisha's our future and our hope," Sister Mary says. "She's a future mentor." Tanisha sits silently and smiles.
In this hard year, with unemployment exploding and winter arriving early, gifts have been off, and Project HOME has had to cut back. Still, "seeing people soar and develop their skills and transform themselves in so many ways gives me hope," Sister Mary says. "The kids here just blossom."
"We do see a lot of miracles. Recovery is a miracle, and a gift. Every family has potential. Every life does," says Sister Mary, gazing at Tanisha, her old friend, her fellow civic leader. "And where there is life, there is hope."
Christmas came early for Tanisha. What does Sister Mary want for the holidays and new year? "Oh, nothing," she says, dismissively waving her hand.
What does she want for Project HOME, now entering its 21st year? "Oh, now I'm going to get greedy," she says. Food for the cupboards at St. Elizabeth's Community Center, summer jobs for teens, winter hats, gloves, women's sweatpants, disposable bowls, silverware, new pillows.
Karen Heller: More Information
To make a donation or learn more, write to Project HOME, 1515 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia 19130; call 215-232-7272; or visit projecthome.org