Barbara Laker | Philadelphia Daily News | December 1994
Albert Perez stands on the littered sidewalk outside his elementary school where a man fired a gun five times the day before, narrowly missing several people.
It’s 2:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Albert and his schoolmates have just been let out of the graffiti-scarred Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary on Cambria Street in West Kensington.
Amid the normal after-school commotion, a dozen parents huddle on Cambria, gazing down Waterloo Street. Four young thugs surround a man and drag him to the end of the block. They push him onto the blacktop and kick him repeatedly in the head.
Seven-year-old Albert doesn’t notice.
“Just another day,” shrugs crossing guard Rosa Mateo, as children reach up to give her a hug while she helps them cross the bustling intersection at Howard Street.
Mateo has heard it all from the children of Sheppard School. Parents battling AIDS. Brothers selling drugs. Sisters who were shot to death. Last summer Sheppard first-grader Felicia Colon was killed by a bullet to the head.
Mateo helps the children survive these crossroads too. She fills a void left by parents who don’t parent and a government which is unable to heal a growing urban cancer.
Teachers, staffers, neighbors, parents and friends form an informal army to defend these children of chaos. They show that even in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods, people can raise a fortress around their young.
They walk the children home when corners are roped off after a shooting. They comfort kids like the 8-year-old girl whose drug-addicted mom pushes her down the stairs. They try to explain why gun-toting drug dealers rule the neighborhood.
But it’s hard for children like Albert to understand.
With a black Power Rangers knapsack slung over his back, Albert walks the four blocks home to Palethorp Street, empty crack vials and syringes crunching under his feet.
He walks quickly, his eyes locked to the sidewalk. Cars screech past him, escaping the neighborhood after making corner drug buys.
Sometimes Albert breaks into a jog.
“If they shoot you and you’re a little kid, you can get killed,” he says.
Albert has seen three people bleeding on the sidewalk from gunshot wounds. The last time was in September, when a 21-year-old man was killed one block from Sheppard.
“I saw the blood. He was shot in the arm, chest and leg. I saw the bullets on the floor,” Albert says. “Sometimes when my mom goes to sleep, they start shooting outside. My mom goes to the window.
“Then she tells us to go hide under the bed.”
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and John Riddick is preparing Sheppard School for the day. He steps outside the 1897 stone building to a bare concrete yard surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, and starts to pick up the trash from the night before.
“We find everything out here,” the custodian says. “Old TVs, bottles, crack vials, syringes, condoms. It’s so regular that I don’t pay no attention. I just try to sweep. ”
Riddick works all day to keep the school clean. But before it’s over, trash and crack vials lie by the front steps.
A few weeks ago, he was held up at gunpoint in the schoolyard at 6:20 in the evening.
Riddick tires of the trash, the violence, the drug dealers, and the addicts who use the schoolyard after dark as a bathroom and a bordello. “But I look at it this way,” he says, sweeping the sidewalk, “I’ve got my life.”
By 8:45 a.m., dozens of children pour through Sheppard’s steel front doors.
Most of the 550 children come from homes where life is a struggle. The neighborhood’s median household income is $8,333, according to the latest U.S. census figures, and nearly 64 percent of the residents live below the poverty level. Seventy-one percent of adults 25 and older didn’t graduate high school.
Sheppard’s leaders want something better for the children.
“We don’t want these children to grow up and fight the same things – abandoned buildings, gunfire, trash – that their parents fought,” said Principal Joyce Kail.”If they think this is what all neighborhoods look like, it gives them a skewed view. …We have to give them motivation, vision and options for the future. ”
In Room 102, Marilyn Holmes commands 27 kids in her first grade. This year, all but one are repeating.
Holmes, who has taught at Sheppard for 28 years, moves around the classroom with the grace of a dancer and the energy of a marathon runner. She grins and gestures broadly to capture the children’s attention. She vigilantly keeps it.
Her students have reason to lose concentration. One girl visits her mother in prison. Another girl’s mother has died of AIDS. Two other students are adjusting to foster care.
“The children here have to face so much,” Holmes says. “Coming to school is a relief . . . I often ask myself how they learn their ABC’s when they have to deal with survival.”
While Holmes teaches her students the phonetic difference between the words ”jam” and “jab,” Olga Pomales and Nancy Negron, Sheppard’s community coordinators, go out to talk with parents whose children don’t show up for school.
“This is a family of eight kids,” Pomales says, approaching a rowhouse on Silver Street. “The ninth child, a little baby, she gave to some friend. That’s what she says. Who knows? ”
Four of the children go to Sheppard. None attends regularly. The woman’s 8- year-old son had 62 absences last year.
Pomales has visited the 29-year-old mother numerous times and has heard numerous excuses – the kids woke up late, the child’s sick, they have no clothes to wear.
This time, Pomales repeatedly knocks on the dirty front door. “If the children come to school, they can learn. But not if they never come,” Pomales says.
There’s no answer. Pomales leaves a note and moves on.
“I keep trying because sooner or later I figure, the moms will get tired of seeing me around and the kids will come to school,” she says.
“They know we don’t give up easily. If everyone throws up their hands, where are these kids going to end up?” she asks. “These kids are our future.”
Back at Sheppard, Holmes agrees. “If we lose that hope, then these children in here can become statistics of what’s going on out there. ”
It’s 2:45 p.m on a Wednesday and time for Holmes to step into the auditorium, where 30 kids wait for her to teach them to dance. She formed the dance club four years ago because she thought it would be something they’d enjoy.
The music blares as the children step side to side, turn around and lift their arms and legs in perfect unison.
The tension leaves their faces. For now, they are carefree.
One of the dance-club regulars is 8-year-old Steven Grimes.
His grandmother, Catherine Glover, sits watching. She volunteers at the school practically every day, tutoring kids in reading, helping them write.
Glover has cared for Steven since she found him on a pile of rags in the corner of a crack house. He was 6 weeks old.
“The cops called me to come get him. . . . There were so many people in there. No walls, just beams and wires hanging down. It was filthy in there,” says Glover, 54.
Glover says her 29-year-old daughter, Steven’s mother, has been addicted to crack since age 17.
She’s pregnant with her fourth child. Glover doesn’t know where she is.
Steven makes straight A’s and has perfect attendance. The crack that made his body shake when he was born plays out in different ways today.
“He fights at school. He swings on the pipes in the bathrooms. Instead of coming home, he wanders off,” Glover says.
Steven sees his mother every three months or so.
“He wants to go home with her, but she doesn’t want to be bothered by him,” Glover says.
More than once, he has run away to find his mother. Each time, she turns him away.
Jeremy Viejegas, a first-grader in Holmes’ class, doesn’t live with his mother, either.
In September and early October, 7-year-old Jeremy showed up at Sheppard to eat breakfast, then left, only to return for lunch. The rest of the day, he walked the littered streets nearby.
Many days he ended up at Safe Haven, a federally funded program with a storefront on Front Street near Seltzer, where kids can do homework, and learn things like nutrition, street safety and their Latino heritage.
He often stayed until it closed at 9 p.m.
“He had a million different stories why he wasn’t in school,” says Tainoel Araraya, a Safe Haven staffer who befriended Jeremy. “He was a kid who obviously had a lot of problems.”
Jeremy lived with his mother in a dilapidated rowhouse a few houses from Safe Haven.
In October, city social workers came to investigate. “They told his mom they had to remove him from the home,” Araraya says.
Araraya was outside when Jeremy’s mom was crying that her son was being taken. The social workers, Araraya says, asked if he’d be willing to care for Jeremy as his foster dad.
Araraya, an Indian-rights and peace activist, quickly said yes. He’s 21 and has six other children, two of whom live with him. He supports them with $294 he gets paid every two weeks as an Americorps volunteer. But he wanted to see that Jeremy had a chance.
He’d been a foster child himself after his parents were killed in a 1979 massacre on the Indian reservation they lived on in Brazil.
Now he takes Jeremy to Sheppard every day and waits for him every afternoon at Safe Haven.
Jeremy started to call Araraya “dad” after two days.
“I love my mom a lot, but I want to live with my dad because I love him,” Jeremy says. “I have fun now. I feel happy. ”
The gleam in his deep brown eyes disappears only when he talks about the everyday violence he can’t escape.
“When I hear shooting, it makes me get a headache,” he murmurs, fidgeting with a quarter. “My heart starts to beep a lot. It looks like someone could get killed. ”
It’s 3:20 p.m. on a Thursday and in the modest living room of her two-story rowhouse, Angelina Rivera is making four of her children do their homework in the kitchen while she manages their active 2-year-old brother.
Rivera, 27, lives on Lee Street in the same block that Felicia Colon called home.
A stray bullet fatally wounded Felicia outside her grandmother’s house, two miles away, on July 21. It was Felicia’s sixth birthday.
More than 125 children live on this block. Many have parents trying desperately to protect them. But a few parents have lost hope because their teen-age sons deal drugs and keep guns, crack and heroin at home.
“There are parents on this block who pray every day that their kids get arrested,” Rivera says. “They’re better off in jail than on the corner.”
One wall of Rivera’s dining room is covered with her children’s academic awards. When they’re not in school, she’s at their side.
“Children don’t run as free since Felicia was killed,” says Rivera, a leader for Sheppard’s Parents Association. “My kids can’t leave the front of the house.”
Two years ago Rivera and dozens of other parents decided they’d had enough. An undercover cop and a drug dealer wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard at dismissal time. They went for their guns until they saw children surrounded them screaming in terror.
Five hundred parents gathered the children to perform a play for the Police Department so officers could see what the kids confront every day.
Within weeks, a cop was stationed at the school. He’s been there ever since.
The parents’ group also secured a full-day kindergarten.
Rosa Mateo, the crossing guard, started a Girl Scout troop and secured chain-link fences to enclose two vacant lots bordering the school.
“It may not sound like a lot, but it’s something,” says Mateo, a grandmother of four. “I just want people to realize there are children here. They deserve respect, and we need to give them a chance.”
She claims all 550 children of Sheppard. “When they come in this direction, they’re mine.”
Mateo was there one morning to comfort the children when fire rescuers recently pulled an unconscious man from an abandoned house across the street. Dozens saw the man who had overdosed on drugs before their school day even began.
She was there when the gunshot victim lay bleeding a block away while kids were walking home.
Mateo can almost always be found when gunfire erupts during school. If kids are outside, officials announce a “Code Purple,” and the teachers quickly move everyone inside to safety.
“I’m just tired of seeing this,” Mateo says. “I see it through the children’s eyes. And if they see this every day, how can their hopes not go down the drain? ”
One of the children Mateo watches over, Ray Ortiz, says the same prayer every night.
“I pray I’ll never be shot, that nothing bad will happen to me,” the fourth-grader says.
He stands in his bedroom where he keeps rosary beads on his pillow.
He narrowly escaped a bullet a few weeks ago when he was playing football outside his house on Lippincott Street at 5:30 in the afternoon.
“People just started shooting at the corner. I had my keys and we were trying to go inside, but we didn’t have the time. ”
One bullet hit the window of a car parked in front of him. Another whizzed by his right ear. “I heard it go by. It was like a strong wind.”
When his mother, Sonia Gonzalez, remembers that day, she puts her arms around Ray, cradles him and cries softly.
She sits on her living room sofa, tiny and frail from more than 20 surgeries she’s undergone to correct hips that have been dislocated since birth.
A 30-year-old single mother, she survives on disability payments and talks with Ray every day about why he should work hard and not hang out with kids who make drug money on street corners.
They have become friends, not just a mother and son, because Gonzalez says she has to make sure Ray doesn’t get swept into the drug world.
“We can’t close the doors to reality,” she says. “No kid is safe around here.”
Ray, a B student with closely cropped hair, kind gray eyes and a cross around his neck, dreams of becoming a narcotics officer and taking his mother out of the neighborhood.
“Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, wherever she wants to go,” he boasts, putting his arm around her. “As long as we’re out of this, we’ll be fine.”
She smiles as tears roll down her face.
She wants all his dreams to come true. But dreams are often shattered for the children of Sheppard School.
“It’s really hard competition,” Gonzalez says.
She looks toward her living room window where the mini-blinds shut out the streets.
Sirens wail blocks away.
“This is a war right now,” she says softly. “And it’s me. It’s me against an army.”
Albert Perez meets his mother, Elizabeth Rodriguez, on their concrete front steps after school. Drug dealers continue a booming business at the corner.
Rodriguez, 26, has placed cement slabs at the curb in front of her house so drugged drivers don’t hit the children.
Pregnant with her fourth child, she has had to tell the dealers to move when they sell in front of her house. “Keep it on the corner,” she yells.
“You see people buy drugs with kids in the car,” Albert says. “They get that white stuff. It changes their brain. They get a little crazy. ”
Asked what scares him, Albert doesn’t hesitate. “I’m scared when they start shooting. They may hit you. They may hit your house. ”
A police van pulls up at the end of his block. “They’re going to lock someone up,” Albert says nonchalantly. “But when they lock people up, they get out. Nothing happens. ”
He looks away from the van, and like most 7-year-olds in his neighborhood, says he wants to fix it someday. “I want to be a police officer, so when this stuff happens, I could take care of it.”
Suddenly, a billow of smoke from the next block clouds the sky and moves down the street.
A white shell of a car has been set on fire. Flames shoot everywhere.
And like most 7-year-olds in his neighborhood, Albert doesn’t look up.
Writer bio: Barbara Laker won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting along with her partner Wendy Ruderman for the “Tainted Justice” series, which exposed police corruption. Laker, a native of Kent, England, joined The People Paper in 1993.