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Inquirer spotlight on hunger spurs acts of generosity

Last in an occasional series

Imani Sullivan got a new job and an apartment after our readers helped her out. At Sullivan's housewarming party, Mariana Chilton, a child hunger expert at Drexel University's School of Public Health, is greeted by Sullivan's son, Asem, 4, and his friend Safee Jackson, 4. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
Imani Sullivan got a new job and an apartment after our readers helped her out. At Sullivan's housewarming party, Mariana Chilton, a child hunger expert at Drexel University's School of Public Health, is greeted by Sullivan's son, Asem, 4, and his friend Safee Jackson, 4. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

Imani Sullivan's friends threw her a housewarming party a couple of weeks ago in her new one-bedroom apartment in Feltonville.

Months earlier, Sullivan had spoken in despair about the shame she felt not having enough food to feed her two young boys. She even contemplated suicide.

Yet here she was, approaching New Year's, in a place of her own, paying rent.

She had a job as a janitor cleaning offices that pays $14,600 a year, including vacation, insurance, and a 401(k) plan.

Her apartment has hardwood floors and clean, white walls. It's only two miles from her mother's apartment in North Philadelphia, where she used to live. But it feels like 1,000 miles and a lifetime away.

"I love it here so much," said Sullivan, 31. "On our first night here, my son De-Mire said, 'Everything looks fresh.' "

Her story shows what can happen in Philadelphia when a light is shined on a largely hidden problem - hunger - and people start to respond, in the neighborhood, at City Hall, even in Washington.

It all began with a study that concluded Philadelphia's serpentine First Congressional District was the second-hungriest in America, behind only the South Bronx.

The Inquirer stories started 10 months later, chronicling Sullivan's struggle. They looked at hunger and the broader First District from many perspectives. And they triggered a response that's still gathering momentum.

Mayor Nutter, moved by what he read, said the plight of hungry people in Philadelphia is a "huge" and "distressing" issue. He announced he would create a high-level position to coordinate the city's efforts to battle hunger.

"The person would have significant responsibility, and be empowered to get things done," Nutter said in an interview. "There's no reason in 2010 going into 2011 in Philadelphia that any child or parent should go without food. No reason whatsoever."

Nutter said the genesis of the job grew out of talks he and his staff had with hunger expert Mariana Chilton of Drexel University's School of Public Health.

Drexel now plans to establish a Center for Hunger-Free Communities, to be headed by Chilton, who also will run a national conference on hunger in Philadelphia in 2012.

The center will focus on hunger research and community-based solutions to fight hunger. Chilton founded Witnesses to Hunger at Drexel, a research and advocacy program.

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.), who represents the district, reported that businessmen who read the stories had approached him with a potential plan to build a supermarket in North Philadelphia, which suffers from a dearth of stores offering fresh food.

Brady also said he and State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) were close to obtaining the final $2 million in state and federal money to help establish the nation's first nonprofit supermarket, in Chester, on the western edge of the district. That city has no supermarkets, and Philabundance, the area's largest hunger-relief agency, plans to build and run the $4 million store.

Less grandoise, but equally poignant, were responses from ordinary Philadelphians, who donated money and supermarket gift cards to local antihunger organizations. Some 700 people contacted Drexel, asking to help. At the same time, Philabundance recorded a 340 percent increase in the number of donors after the first story ran on Oct. 10.

Readers also sent money and offered services, furniture, and other items to the people profiled in the stories, who have said their lives were changed, sometimes in significant ways.

"I got a lot of help," said Myra Young, whose past-due $770 electric bill and overdue rent were paid by readers. Young had been worried that her electricity would be cut off, rendering useless her son's nebulizer for asthma treatments. "It surprised me how nice people were."

At Imani Sullivan's housewarming party, the curried chicken and the macaroni and cheese bubbled on the stove to perfection.

"Where do I start to thank people?" Sullivan said. "Philadelphia reached out to me in ways I never would have imagined. Over 200 people have helped us. I'm so grateful.

"I get courtesy calls from people saying I'm in their prayers. A woman told me she wasn't able to sleep worrying that my boys were OK. Knowing you're on somebody's mind is remarkable."

At one point during the party, Chilton showed up with her daughter, Gabriela, 6. Sullivan is a member of Drexel's Witnesses to Hunger and the two women are close.

They embraced as Chilton delivered a gift of pots and pans and her daughter sat to watch television with Sullivan's 4-year-old.

"It's so wonderful," Chilton told Sullivan.

Sullivan said she was grateful to all her friends for unwavering support. "They tell me I deserve the chance to be happy," Sullivan said, beaming. "Our new start is starting off real good."

The holidays seemed equally joyous for the Scott family.

Last year, their Christmas presents were stolen.

This year, after they told their story, things were different.

The five Scott children woke up Christmas morning to a mountain of presents, in an outpouring of support from strangers. They also received help moving into a new apartment after they were evicted from their last one, partly because of an altercation with the landlord.

"The kids had a really good Christmas," said Melissa Scott, 27, whose carpenter husband, Joe, has been out of work. "I'm shocked at how many people helped out."

Things are still tight when it comes to providing enough food for the children, although Scott said donations had helped.

And she said her husband may have a line on a painting job, which she hopes can turn into something long term.

"Joe is still looking for work," Scott said. "So we'll see what happens."

Meanwhile, Celeata Bailey, 21, said things had improved in her life - somewhat.

Most of the ceiling in Bailey's Norris Square bedroom was missing, and a roofer who read about her plight volunteered to make repairs.

Now Bailey's bed no longer gets soaked when it rains. "I was amazed," she said.

Bailey, who has suffered from diabetes since 13 because of a poor person's diet of cheap, fattening, processed foods, struggles with a weight problem.

A personal trainer who read about her condition contacted Bailey through her pastor, and the two have begun working together. She said she had started to lose weight.

Bailey added that workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia had been sending her gift cards from a Fresh Grocer store to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

"I'm eating better food," she said. "I'm doing it little by little."

Things also have improved for C.J. Waddy, a former Frankford preschool teacher born into poverty who wrote a children's book, illustrated by his 11-year-old son, Chafik, about the dangers of children talking to strangers.

Waddy, 35, whose story was featured, once taught Iriana DeJesus, a 5-year-old who was abducted and killed by a stranger.

The event haunted him and he vowed to write a children's book about it, changing the ending in fiction so that in his story, the little abducted girl lives.

Waddy was trying to self-publish his book, but it was prohibitively expensive - more than $3,000. Waddy said a local publishing company, P.M. Gordon Associates, will publish the book free of charge.

"The company is so generous," he enthused. "And people have been contacting me asking if they can order the book when it comes out around Valentine's Day."

Meanwhile, Bryant Calloway, who survives in North Philadelphia by doing odd jobs, has hope for paid work. He's gotten several work offers from people in the region.

And finally, Sherita Parks, 33, of Frankford, said she received an unforeseen benefit from telling her story: She became part of Chilton's Witnesses to Hunger group, ending the isolation she'd felt caring for her 2-year-old daughter, Jo-anna. The girl suffers from a failure to thrive: low weight for her age caused in part by not getting enough food. Being part of Witnesses gives Parks a sense of sisterhood that was lacking in her life.

"Witnesses is a big help," Parks said. "A social worker from there told me he'd help me go to school and get a job. It's the best thing."

As far as Chilton herself goes, the iconoclastic professor who defies conventional scholarship by getting personally close to her research subjects has courted controversy again.

In a talk in Denver late in the fall, Chilton presented a paper outlining episodes of violence and sexual abuse in the lives of her Witnesses women. "Thirty-five of 42 women exprienced some type of severe violence or sexual abuse, often at the hands of family members," Chilton discovered.

She said that sort of research "makes me unpopular with my antihunger colleagues, because outsiders focus on the violence rather than the deprivation, and colleagues believe it allows people to blame the poor for being violent."

Chilton wants people to see that violence, stress, and depression are often part of living in poverty.

Listed as a co-author on the paper was Witness Angela Sutton, 34, who recently moved from Olney to Northeast Philadelphia. In the paper, she described being shot at age 14 in drug-related crossfire, then raped by her estranged father when she recovered from her wounds. Her father, who had a different last name, died recently.

"I put up with a lot of struggle and dysfunction," said Sutton, now a single mother of two and a Drexel student studying behavioral health. "In poverty, people are overwhelmed with stress."

Responses to the Inquirer series ranged from a woman who sent a $7 Dollar Tree gift card to Drexel to help a hungry person, to pledges of thousands of dollars from various local philanthropies wishing to remain unnamed.

In one case, such an organization pledged $5,000 to Adan Mairena, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Kensington who was profiled in the series.

Various schools and organizations put together food drives to help the hungry.

During the days leading up to Christmas, a group of people on Facebook and other social networks banded together over 21/2 weeks to connect with community organizations in the First Congressional District to distribute food and gifts to 78 families, including hundreds of children.

Chilton said she was moved by people's generosity. She mentioned one person in particular, a mysterious man riding a bike who dropped off $80 in an envelope and said he wanted to help hungry people somehow. He would not give his name.

" 'Take this,' " Chilton said the man told one of her staff before abruptly leaving. " 'I know you will do the right thing with it.' "

Though some people were helped, Chilton and other experts point out, the First Congressional District continues to roil in debilitating poverty, with more than one in three people experiencing hunger. "It's generations of people experiencing this kind of deprivation," she said.

Referencing Chilton's research on how lack of food can stunt children's brain growth as well as their mental and physical development, Nutter said, "a child can grow up challenged and not living out his or her full potential."

He added that his concern isn't only with hunger, but with healthy eating and with obesity caused by poor people having little choice but to eat processed foods because supermarkets with fresh foods are scarce in low-income areas.

Nutter said the responsibilities and focus of the person in the new position, which he hopes to fund privately through corporate or nonprofit resources, had yet to be determined.

He added that the new antihunger administrator would coordinate ongoing city efforts to tackle the issue: the inclusion of healthier foods into the school breakfast program, and the addition of supper feeding programs begun in Department of Recreation sites last month. The city has also worked to make more fresh food available to poor people, and has augmented feeding programs for homeless children, Schwarz said.

Nutter said that if a food emergency developed in a foreign land, our country would respond within 24 hours.

"What I want to know," he said, "is where is all that food right now for an American child?"