Then the script changed…. News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

It looked like the fine old church building
with its distinctive tile roof was due to be demolished.
 Then the script changed….

Third Prebyteri

The Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of 9th and Potter Streets, Chester, was spared at the last minute when it was purchased recently by the Chester Historical Preservation Committee for the grand sum of $1. Now the plan is to restore and, once again, use it to enrich the lives of people of Chester.

Not the first time this Chester landmark was rescued from oblivion. Back in the 1980s, the congregation left, and the sprawling edifice sat abandoned, its stained glass windows serving as targets for kids’ missiles.

Then the Presbytery of Philadelphia asked Rev. Joan Salmon-Campbell, who would later go on to become Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to turn the venerable building into something useful. Thus was born Chester Eastside Ministries (CEM). For Rev. Salmon-Campbell, it was a matter of first things first. People needed food to survive. So CEM began as a food cupboard. People would line up at the door in all kinds of weather to receive a little something for the family larder. But, as the Bible reminds us, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Little by little, CEM began to add other activities to its agenda.

Over time, an amazing array of programs evolved. An after-school reading program that gave young people a lot more than the ability to comprehend words on a page. That program would expand in time to include a diversity of enrichment activities and healthy play opportunities, horseback riding and skiing, things a Chester child could only dream of. A Saturday Arts program included everything from painting to dance, dramatics and music lessons. A Summer Enrichment Camp  evolved from basic recreational activities to a variety of new experiences including swimming, golf, and visits to museums, opening up a world beyond what children had ever experienced.

CEM was always a welcoming place, a refuge that went way beyond specific services, a source of stability in an often unstable environment. Central to its mission was helping people become all that they can be. A woman who first came for a food handout moved on to serve as a volunteer and ended up in a key staff position. Children in the After School Program have gone on to college, one studying for her doctorate. A young man who participated in a CEM drama program got a starring role in a production by People’s Light & Theater of Philadelphia.

In 1995, the Rev. Bernice Warren took the helm. Having grown up in a Chester public housing project, she knew the community, its struggles and its strengths, first-hand. For her, it was not just a homecoming but an opportunity to give something back to her community.

The activities have touched the lives of people of all ages and all conditions: a GED program for adults needing to complete their high school education; TAP, a program to help teenagers prepare for college; a pre-school program to provide an educational foundation at a crucial time in children’s development; Parents First, workshops for parents of children in the early grades; counseling for prisoners and ex-offenders; a Mothers’ Club to help parents grapple with the practical problems of daily living. Sometimes the agency has launched a new program and then spun it off as an independent organization and then continued to support it; an example is the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp that helps teenagers learn constructive ways to deal with conflict, develop their creative potential, and gain a new appreciation of the rich heritage they are part of.

Tackling the big issues head on.

From the beginning, CEM was home to much more than a range of social services. Early on, it became identified with efforts to make a difference regarding the larger issues that impinge on the lives of Chesterites. Jobs With Peace was an action organization which called for more of our tax dollars being used for putting people to work and less for making war. A voter registration campaign that was based at CEM succeeded in changing party control of City Hall for the first time in 104 years. The FAIR Deal Coalition, confronting the issue of casino gambling in Chester, used the agency as its home base. In more recent years, the agency  has joined efforts to prevent gun violence and muster support for quality education for all Chester children.

Refusing to give up in the face of setbacks.

In 2013, the church was found to have deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe for occupancy by anyone. This devastating setback followed close on the heels of the loss of a major part of CEM’s funding from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The response to the two-headed crisis was characteristic of the way so many Chester people and institutions deal with potential disaster: They rise to the challenge and find a way to go on, often stronger for the experience. Chester Eastside Ministries became Chester Eastside, Inc. (CEI), an independent 501.c.3 organization. Through the generous support of the nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church,  CEI found a new home a block away from the old site. CEI’s headquarters are now located on the basement level of St. Paul’s. Faith communities have always been an important resource for CEI, ranging from suburban churches to a Friends meeting and a Jewish synagogue. But support has also come from neighboring social agencies, from government, and from philanthropic foundations; And at the other end of spectrum, college students and many other individuals simply wanting to make a difference. One of the most touching sources of support has been donations by inmates in a nearby prison. So after ending two years in the red, CEI more than broke even in 2014.

Now, as another dedicated group seeks to breathe new life into the old church edifice, Chester Eastside, Inc., carries on the mission that began in an abandoned church at the corner 9th and Potter Streets more than a quarter century ago.

By timmreardon

Peace Leadership & Arts Camp gives Chester teens a chance to connect with their roots and see the possibilities in their lives – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Peace Camp 15 -1

For some campers, it was the thrill of meeting a real live movie star, Michael Ealy. His message to the teens: See what you can become. For some, it was the trip to Washington, DC.; visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial and hearing from an administrator at the Smithsonian Institute about opportunities for high school and college students as interns.

For some, it was getting connected with their roots and seeing possibilities they didn’t know existed. But first-timer Taliah Rooks saw it more in personal terms: being able to stand up in front of a lot of adults, overcome the stage fright, and make a presentation like a pro. “I also liked it when we partnered on the obstacle course and helped each other through it.” It was another new experience for Taliah.

That combination of fun and serious business is what makes the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp (PL&A) such a unique experience for the 22 teenagers who participate in it this summer.  It was founded a number of years ago by Chester Eastside, Inc., which still supports its work

At the final celebration on the grounds of the Chester Friends Meetinghouse in late August, all those threads came together in a series of presentations that included original songs and poems. The remarkable thing to PL&A Assistant Director Nate Thompson was the fact that the young people were able to pulled it off after only a few weeks’ preparation.

The dramatized scenes by writer/director Kareem Rogers linked together such disparate images as slave traders of old making their “merchandise” hop and run to make them more salable, and the NBA draft; in both cases, human beings reduced to their value in purely physical terms. But running throughout was a sense of pride among the young performers in who they were despite awesome challenges. “We’re tall as trees. Try to cut us down; we’re still standing tall,” went the words of one selection created by campers. For Camp Director Foluke Bennett, this year’s camp was different from previous ones, because it took place against a backdrop of the many new challenges facing today’s youth. In one memorable episode, a young poet told about having to learn how to behave in the presence of police, and campers darted back and forth across the stage, having to keep a wary eye. And campers put together a book based on the theme of this years camp, “Raising Our Voice.”

Copies can be purchased by clicking on or on Create Space at

By timmreardon

Chester Eastside’s Summer Enrichment Camp: A time for fun – but for learning, too – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

CE Camp 2015

The Summer Enrichment Camp offers everything from swimming to visiting places like the Franklin
Institute, a world these children never knew existed. The underlying theme of this year’s camp, “My
city needs something – and it starts with you and me,” resonated with the campers, as shown in the
original poems and songs they presented to their parents at the closing session. One mother, Janie Lee,
was particularly touched by her daughter Deniseesh’s poem entitled “A Mother Like Mine.” It was
quite by chance that Janie learned about the camp this year. Three of her children took part. “We live
amid the constant threat of guns and violence in our neighborhood,” says Janie. “This summer for the
first time, the children not only felt safe but had the chance to talk about their fear.” A few years ago,
one of her son’s close friends was killed.


View Summer Camp photos here:

By timmreardon

Peace campers show their stuff at rousing fundraiser – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Peace Camp 15

CHESTER: It was a jubilant expression of young Chester talent that greeted those fortunate enough to attend the fundraiser for the Peace, Leadership, & The Arts Camp (PLAC) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in June.

Serious business: The camp, a partnership between Chester Eastside, Inc., and 4 Circles Beyond, Inc., has to generate its own primary funding. That it did, to the tune of $1,200 on that particular occasion. Students who have benefited from the multi-sided program were in the spotlight that evening: reciting poetry and rap, singing beautiful renditions of original compositions — most from memory, without a note or prompt in front of them. It was an outpouring of remarkable talent. Also on the program was a set of dazzling selections by Tribe 1, a Philadelphia-based performing group that numbers among its members Foluke Bennett, Director of PLAC.

There were searing messages about what young folks face these days in many of the campers’ renditions, but also a strong sense of pride in who they are and hope for the future. As if to underscore the challenges for young people of African descent, the group observed a period of silent prayer for the victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and their families.

A beacon of light for Chester youth.
The Peace Leadership and the Arts Camp (PLAC) has provided a creative space for youth within Chester City and throughout Delaware County since 2009.

The camp has served as a beacon of light for young people who have witnessed the city struggle to bring down gun violence over the years. PLAC opened its doors in the summer of 2009 when gun violence began increasing.

“It was evident that the young people really needed a place to go and learn how to deal in a more peaceful way with the conflicts going on in the community and to take some of those skills back to the community,” said Foluke Bennett, Director of PLAC. Bennett said she has witnessed campers become more confident in being their “authentic selves” due to the camp’s focus on conflict resolution and leadership skills.

“Seeing how young people have been able to grow… now they are taking more of a leadership role in the camp as well, designing the activities, leading the activities, and leading their peers,” said Bennett. “I’m constantly inspired by them. Just seeing them be their authentic selves, which is why I’m coming back for a fourth year.”

She recalled how a young camper named David Collins came to PLAC unaware of how dynamic his poetry was. He is now returning to the camp for his third year but this time as an intern counselor. Collins said if it had not been for the camp he would not have known just how creative he could be as a writer. “Throughout the camp, through the exercises and the group activities it helped me open up and express myself more than I usually did,” said Collins. “It even helped me find out talents, features and qualities that really I didn’t see in myself but others did. It helped me acknowledge it better.”

Collins graduated from Cardinal O’Hara this year and is heading to Lincoln University to start his college career, majoring in technical and mechanical engineering… and of course minoring in music. At the fundraiser, he presented an original poem titled “The Power of Words.” He says he is looking forward to being a counselor so that he can give to new campers what was given to him. “It’s a great place to feel safe, express yourself and find your talent; to become a better you,” promised Collins.

Persons wishing to contribute to the Peace, Leadership, & The Arts Camp should send checks to 4 Circles Beyond, Inc., Princeton, NJ 08540.

By timmreardon

Chester Eastside board member honored by Widener University

Jim Ley - 2

Rev. James Ley, Vice-chairperson of the Chester Eastside, Inc., Board, received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Public Service in ceremonies as part of Widener University’s 2015 commencement, in recognition of his many years of service to the Chester community and the University.

In his remarks, Dr. Ley paid special tribute to Rev. Bernice Warren, Executive Director of Chester Eastside, Inc., among others, who “are my continuing mentors and teachers…. I must also thank Widener for inviting me to participate in the life and essence of this great university for these past 13 years. It is here in Chester and at Widener that I have literally found my passion and reason for being.”

In addition to his Chester Eastside Board responsibilities, which include serving on a number of key committees, Dr. Ley has given lectures and participated actively in “service learning” for Widener students, in which they provide volunteer services for the people of Chester at Chester Eastside and elsewhere in the community.

Dr. Ley is Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, in which capacity he has played a key role in the developing relationship between Chester Eastside and St. Paul’s, other churches in the area, and Episcopal Community Services of Philadelphia.

By timmreardon

Child Food Insecurity – Executive Summary

In September of 2014, the Economic Research Service at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its most recent report ( on food insecurity, indicating that 49 million people in the United States are living in food insecure households, 15.8 million of whom are children. While the magnitude of the problem is clear, national and even state estimates of food insecurity can mask the nuances that exist at the local level.

Recognizing that children are particularly vulnerable to the economic challenges facing families today, Feeding America sought to replicate the food insecurity model used in the original Map the Meal Gap study to reflectm the need among children. In the past, Feeding America has conducted research in an effort to learn more about child food insecurity across the country. Beginning in 2009, ConAgra Foods Foundation funded annual reports that included state-level estimates of child food insecurity based on three-year averages. With the Map the Meal Gap methodology developed by Dr. Craig Gundersen, an internationally-renowned expert on food insecurity, we are now able to estimate annual child food insecurity rates at the county and congressional district level. Additionally, this study provides information on the proportion of the child food insecure populations above and below the income eligibility threshold for most government child nutrition programs, as well as a review of food cost variation alongside CFI rates.

These reports summarize findings from an analysis of child food insecurity at the state, county and congressional district level, and the data will be updated annually. This study was generously funded by the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

Child Executive Summary

For the 2013 report, it was combined with the overall food insecurity Executive Summary.

By timmreardon

The Longterm Cost of Food Insecurity – News from Chester Eastside

​Since November, 2014, the Food Center at Chester Eastside has served over 300 households a month. Children alone have averaged 118 a month. Generally it’s the adults who come to the agency Mondays and Wednesdays to pick up bags of food. But many of these are parents struggling to make ends meet.

What does this mean in human terms?  Recently two women with children who came to Chester Eastside had no food in the house at all. One had lost her job as a personal trainer, and with it lost her home. She and her two children were staying with her mother to avoid living on the streets. The other woman had a roof over her head, but would have no food without her visit to the Food Center. She was especially grateful to have meat.

Cutbacks in funding from the State and other sources have meant that meat and fresh produce are a rarity.  Cheese, which is one of the more expensive items, is totally missing. So families try to subsist on things like canned goods and pasta, which are more readily available. Aside from what they can pick up at the Chester Eastside Food Center and other such programs in Chester, many families have to rely on cheap foods with lots of sugar, salt. and fat but little nutritional value. Over reliance on those foods can lead to health problems like diabetes and obesity.

The Food Center helps to make up for some of these gaps by providing home cooked hot meals at every session.

Hidden cost: the long term effects on children.

The idea of somebody, especially a child, going hungry is something that immediately captures the imagination. It’s been that way since little Oliver Twist pleaded in vain for just a little more gruel, in Charkes Dickens’s classic tale of that name. But what people often miss are the long term indirect effects on a child of a chronic lack of food and what is called “food insecurity” (i.e., uncertainty as to where the next meal is coming from).

Aside from the effect of hunger on a growing body, food insecurity is one more traumatic experience that can have a devastating effect on a child’s future. Poor nutrition has been found to affect a child’s school performance, which in turn is a predictor of everything from whether a person drops out of school to one’s job prospects to the likelihood of substance abuse and even prison time.

“God bless you!”

Many volunteers from Chester and suburban communities help to staff the Food Center at Chester Eastside. And what do they get in return for their efforts? The knowledge that they are truly making a difference in the lives, not only of this generation, but of the next generation and the one after that.  That and the two most frequent comments from recipients: “God bless you!” and, “What would I do without you?”

By timmreardon

Two Chester Eastside Board Members’ Shock & Awe

Both get a searing look at a world of problems out there.

Kamer and Gibbs

Kameron Gibbs and Darren Davis, members of the Chester Eastside, Inc., Board, recently attended a national conference on “Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation,” on behalf of Chester Eastside. What they heard in those few days — often from the victims themselves — was a litany of the kinds of suffering that is the everyday experience of many people both in America and around the globe.

Now they want to share what they learned with fellow Board members in hopes that Chester Eastside can find ways of addressing these problems as they get played out in Chester and beyond.

Having grown up in Chester, the two Board members are not strangers to the challenges of life in urban America. But still, “I found it shocking and surprising,” said Kameron Gibbs, who will be doing graduate studies at Capella University in his chosen field, child psychology. “I realized this could be happening to me.” Already he’s thinking of ways to use what came out at the conference in programs at Chester Eastside.

The conference agenda was not just to shed light on the issues but also to give participants the tools to do something about them. Politics is not a career interest of Darren Davis, who will be doing graduate work at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in the fall. But the conference workshop on lobbying will come in handy as he and Kameron look for ways to help Chester Eastside fulfill its mission of “working for a more just society.” Darren’s longterm goals include developing programs for first-time home buyers

A woman’s account of what she went through in prison after being convicted of a minor offense; the stories of life in refugee camps in the Middle East: These are the kind of thing s that come back to haunt one long after an event is over. As Kameron Gibbs and Darren Davis share these and other gleanings from “Breaking the Chains” with Board, staff and volunteers at Chester Eastside, it’s hoped that they, too will be spurred to action.

By timmreardon

It’s a matter of Life and Death – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.


A display of T-shirts representing Delaware County residents killed over the past five years.
Last year Chester set a record of a kind it doesn’t like to set: 30 violent deaths, most of which involved guns killing young men of color. That in a year when the homicide rate was down in most parts of the country. Now Chester Eastside, Inc., has joined others in the community seeking to stop the violence. Its Board unanimously passed a resolution to that effect at its April meeting, putting the agency squarely on the side of the peacemakers.
Overall, the statistics say that the number other serious crimes is down from what it was in Chester. So there are signs of progress. Which doesn’t take away from the need for action when it comes to gun violence.
In a strongly-worded resolution that appears at the end of this article, the Chester Eastside Board committed itself to join the fight for more effective gun control and include content  on the subject in its programs.
Such efforts are not new to Chester Eastside. Some years ago it gave birth to and continues to support the Peace Leadership and Arts Summer Camp that helps young people find alternative ways to settle their differences and work for a more peaceful society.
It’s not only the risk of bodily harm that is at stake. Children exposed to the trauma of having family members die violently and parents worried about their children’s safety are also hurt by the threat of gun violence.
Chester Eastside is hoping more churches and community organizations will also join in the effort to stop the violence.

        Here is the full text of the resolution passed by Chester Eastside, Inc.’s Board:

Whereas, Chester Eastside, Inc., is committed to working for a just society; and

Whereas, African American males are only 6 percent of the U.S. population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered in any given year; and

Whereas, a major threat to the wellbeing of the people of Chester, particular among young people, is gun violence; and

Whereas, such threat includes both direct danger to life and limb and indirect effects such as trauma; and

Whereas, contrary to national trends in recent years, the 30 homicides in Chester during 2014, most of them gun-related, set a new record; and,

Whereas, there exist various initiatives to reduce gun violence in Chester and elsewhere; therefore,

Be it resolved that Chester Eastside, Inc., work to include content on this issue in its programs; and,

Be it further resolved that Chester Eastside, Inc., commit itself to support the Peace, Leadership & the Arts Camp; and

Be it further resolved that Chester Eastside, Inc., join Heeding God’s Call in their efforts to reduce gun violence; and

Be it further resolved that Chester Eastside, Inc., seek to involve additional organizations in this cause; and,

Be it further resolved that Chester Eastside make known the above initiatives to its stakeholders and the general public in order to encourage their support.

By timmreardon