An NFL star was coming to back to his school and not even an attempted murder was going to keep 15-year-old Danica Guille away.
Danica’s a normal kid, a techie, and an animal lover. She wears bushy twin pigtails, a Harry Potter lanyard for her house keys, and a face mask covered with musical notes. But her mother wanted to keep her home Wednesday because, an hour before the seminar began, she got an alert from the crime update app that a 16-year-old boy had been shot four times in the stomach just down the street from Russell Conwell Middle School in Kensington.
Danica? She was unfazed.
“Within the past week I’ve heard over 200 gunshots. Even during the day. And at night? Gunshot. Gunshot. Gunshot. Gun-shot.” Is she ever scared? “No,” she said, eyes dancing behind glasses with brown, cat’s-eye frames. “I never just leave the house.”
She left the house Wednesday morning, rushed past the beggar in the middle of Kensington Avenue and past the blank-eyed drug dealers on the corner because she didn’t want to miss the first day of Zaire Franklin’s two-day business academy. Franklin, a Conwell alum and now an Indianapolis Colts linebacker, hopes to encourage kids — especially girls — to follow their dreams; dreams that don’t need to be tied to sports or rapping.
“There’s so many things people around here don’t understand they could be a professional in,” Franklin said. “Kids from these types of environments aren’t even privy to that type of information.”
That’s why, in 2019, Franklin founded Shelice’s Angels, a nonprofit named after his late mother, Shelice Highsmith, then took Danica with a group of Conwell girls on a field trip to Google headquarters in New York in 2019. That’s why, on Wednesday, a group of 19 Conwell kids listened to a clothing entrepreneur and a restaurateur. Danica, now a rising sophomore at Walter B. Saul High School in Roxborough, made that walk down the avenue.
On Wednesday, they heard from a one-time juvenile delinquent that they needn’t always be delinquent. They learned from an executive the reward of taking risks.
Franklin is Philly to the core. He joshed about new teammate Carson Wentz, who left the Eagles on bad terms. He joked about Sixers guard Ben Simmons, who on Sunday supplanted Wentz as Public Enemy No. 1. But he stuck to his message.
He believes that the most consistent casualty of generational poverty and the lack of resources is absence of hope. He was a student at Conwell when Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president, in 2008, which inspired him beyond words. He wants these kids to know that if they keep digging, they can avoid an early grave.
Which is exactly where a 14-year-old Isaiah Thomas almost wound up.
‘I pulled a gun on a cop’
Thomas, now 22, has a clothing line and lives in a different universe today. Eight years ago, though, he and seven of his friends had a running conflict with another group of boys from North Philly. One night, he said, things came to a head. When the police arrived, they lined up Thomas and his buddies ... and Thomas made the biggest mistake of his young life.
“I pulled a gun on a cop,” he told the Conwell kids. “I could’ve lost my life.”
He wouldn’t detail what happened next, but the police restrained him, and they found drugs on him, and for the next 5 months he was held awaiting trial in Philadelphia’s juvenile detention center.
“Your bed has to be made, crisp, hospital corners,” said Thomas. His cellmate couldn’t handle confinement. “My celly went crazy.”
Thomas eventually landed concurrent sentences: nine months of house arrest, 12 months of probation. It straightened him out. He wound up at Bensalem High, became a track star, spent a year running distance races at Lincoln University before financial strains sent him back to Philadelphia. Back home, he sold water and sports drinks on the Art Museum steps and became an Uber driver, sometimes sleeping in his car in the airport’s cellphone lot.
Through it all, he sold his “Stay Hungry, Stay Humble” merchandise, first out of his dorm room, then out of his trunk. Now, he has a brick-and-mortar store in the Moorestown Mall. Another will open July 3 in the Willow Grove Mall. He’s @ministerzay today, with more than 26,000 Instagram followers. He’s not selling shirts out of his trunk anymore.
“The grind never stops,” Thomas told the kids.
Understandably, Thomas’ dramatic story held the kids’ attention better than Desiree Pollard’s more conventional and successful tale. She and her husband, Robert, nine years ago quit their jobs — she was a training manager for the Dollar Store, he was a chef at La Salle University — and opened their first restaurant. They eventually grew to five sites, then shrank to three. The COVID-19 pandemic knocked them down to two, but those two are thriving. They catered lunch at Conwell on Wednesday; chicken Caesar salad or breakfast with red velvet waffles (breakfast was the bigger hit).
Pollard, 47, was Shelice Highsmith’s best friend. She looks at Franklin like a mother would look at him and says, “Can you believe him?”
Once a chubby middle-schooler who almost quit football, Franklin’s biceps and pecs now strain the fabric of his red golf shirt. He was a remarkable specimen when he played at La Salle College High School, but now he looks like Captain America. That’s why he comes back; to show the ones who remain that they can do better, too, even if they don’t have superhero DNA. He uses maxims like “Feed a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat all his life.”
He hopes to run similar events in Indianapolis, assuming the Colts sign him past 2021; he can be a free agent after this season. He plans to return to Philadelphia no matter where he plays next. He graduated from Syracuse University with a finance degree, and he hopes to follow former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins’ business model, which includes buying franchises and improving them.
And he wants to be the example for the kids.
“I know you guys live in a crazy environment,” Franklin said. “Everybody knows what it’s like around here.”
Even in broad daylight. But Franklin is magnetic; he’s why Danica Guille went back to Conwell for the day.
“When you think of this area, you think of the forgotten people. Like the drug people: They are forgotten,” Guille said. “When people like him come back, it means we’re not forgotten.”