Quinzelle Bethea awoke early on Thanksgiving morning, and by 10 a.m. he and a group of volunteers from Camden were serving food to men and women in North Philadelphia. Bethea, 24, was relieved. His youth services organization, newly headquartered on North Broad Street, is not yet established outside of Camden, and he was unsure whether anyone would show up for a free holiday meal.
It couldn't have been more different from last Thanksgiving, which Bethea spent in jail after he was falsely arrested.
On Thanksgiving 2016, dozens of people, young and old, filled the room to eat at folding tables covered with table cloths, and Bethea and others passed out more than 100 turkeys.
"In less than an hour all the turkeys were gone," he said last week. "You realize how much need there is."
Bethea and a handful of volunteers hosted the meal in a stately building that Bethea hopes will soon open as an emergency shelter for teenagers and young adults, a place he envisions offering everything from tutoring to art therapy to job training.
The project is part of a network that Bethea is working to build with his youth organization, Forget Me Knot, which he hopes will help troubled kids from both sides of the river find peace and the motivation to make something of themselves.
About a year ago, though, Bethea's own life was nearly derailed. He spent Thanksgiving 2015 in the Camden County jail following an arrest on charges of assault and resisting arrest. The charges were later dismissed and the officer fired from the force, but the experience shook Bethea, reminding him that he is vulnerable to the same forces that threaten many of the people he mentors.
"If nobody believed me, who knows?" he said in a recent interview. "It all could have been over for me. That officer had the potential to ruin my life."
A mentor's help
Bethea started Forget Me Knot with his mentor, Tanisha "Mecca" Robinson, 43, who for years has worked with social service agencies in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Robinson is president of the group, which aims to treat at-risk teens and young adults by providing shelter, counseling, academic help, and connecting them with other safety nets.
Robinson and Bethea hope to open the shelter next month, or as soon as they complete the licensing and certification process through the state Department of Human Services. Named Mecca's House, the shelter is thanks to a partnership with Philadelphia businessman Yoni Nadav, who owns the building and agreed to lend it to Forget Me Knot after he met Bethea.
"Once he started telling me what he wanted to do, I said, 'Here. Take the key,' " Nadav said. "I was touched. Only good things will come out of it."
The 9,000-square-foot building near York Street was once part of Simon Gratz College and sits next door to Official Unlimited, a clothing and shoe store owned by Nadav. Inside, bedrooms are outfitted with donated beds, sheets, and rugs and decorations such as paintings - individualized touches that Bethea and Robinson believe are important for kids who may be accustomed to institutional facilities.
"The theory is to first address the most important problems and go from there," Bethea said. "Many of these kids have been so focused on survival. One of their main goals here should be to just sit and be themselves."
The building has spacious lounges with big windows, a full kitchen, and a wing downstairs with offices for social workers. Bethea envisions a garden outside, a basketball court, and an afterschool community with tutoring in basic subjects as well as financial literacy, and cognitive behavior sessions.
The shelter, to be staffed with social service professionals and funded by state resources and donations, would take referrals from agencies and schools, hosting 75 kids for up to 30 days and connecting them with permanent locations, as needed. They will be encouraged to return for tutoring and counseling even after they move out.
"We want our children to be part of a community," Robinson said. "Once they leave, we don't want to lose track of them. We're here for them even if they don't live here."
If the shelter is successful, they hope to expand it to a nearby building and create transitional apartments, as well as open a shelter in Camden, too.
"If we can make this program work here, it'll work anywhere," Bethea said.
Bethea, who is married and has a 5-year-old son, grew up in Camden and watched as friends and family were drawn to drugs and crime. He credits the influence of his mother with keeping him out of trouble, though last year was not the first time he was put in handcuffs. He was charged with resisting arrest in 2012 after he refused to show identification to a police officer. He fought the charge, then spent almost a month in jail when he refused to pay a $200 fine.
"People said I'm stubborn and maybe they're right," he said recently. "I've tried to grow from that."
Bethea, who is taking online college classes in business and public administration, has been working with at-risk teens and young adults for four years. Until recently he and Robinson worked for an after-school tutoring program through the Camden office of the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, and he also runs a program teaching financial literacy and encouraging Camden teenagers to think about building careers and owning businesses. As a way of encouraging confidence and introducing them to the retail industry, some of Bethea's students sell snacks to passersby outside of City Hall and in other public areas. Others learn how to screen prints on T-shirts and make candles to sell, or are paired with entrepreneurs who teach them about starting a business.
Bethea and his then-fiancee planned to volunteer at a Camden church last Thanksgiving, but four days before that, he was approached by then-Camden police officer Douglas Dickinson as he was walking to his grandmother's house. Bethea refused to stop, and Dickinson, who later said he was looking for a man whose description matched Bethea, threw him on the ground, dislocating his elbow, and arrested him.
Bethea was charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, and obstruction of justice. He spent two weeks in jail, but as accusations surfaced that Dickinson had filed false reports in several cases, Dickinson was fired and the charges against Bethea dropped. Bethea has since filed a malicious-prosecution lawsuit against the county.
Bethea has sought to move forward without bitterness, though the arrest still shows up in a full background check. He tries, instead, to think about the Camden law enforcement officials who knew Dickinson was in the wrong, and who supported him after his arrest; the officer who apologized to him when he drove him to jail; and the internal affairs investigator who believed his account.
"It just made me see how important it was to empower the people in our communities," said Bethea, who plans to spend the Christmas holiday week completing final paperwork for the shelter. "Each one of the kids I meet has potential. They just have to believe that."
For more information, go to forgetmeknotys.org