Chester Eastside: Resurrecting Place and Partnership – Covenant Connections

by Rev. Greg  Klimovitz, Associate Presbyter


CEM logo

In 2014, Chester Eastside Ministries encountered the resurrection in a way many had neither expected nor dreamed possible. Located within the crumbling remnants of a recently condemned yet historic Third Presbyterian Church on 9th Street, Chester Eastside refused to let their call die with their building. Rev. Warren, Pastoral Director of Chester Eastside since 1995, grinned with confidence as she reminisced, “[Our goal was] not just to survive but live into the future.”bernice1

As Rev. Warren and her team awaited a new place to call home, Chester Eastside Ministries transitioned their corporate status into a self-supporting 501(c)3 known as Chester Eastside, Inc. Around the same time, new life came by way of an unforeseen invitation from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The neighboring congregation, located only a few blocks down the road, extended an offer for Chester Eastside, Inc. to take up residence within their building. Rev. Warren and the leadership of Eastside responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Chester Eastside was not the only voice of affirmation that echoed throughout the streets of this Chester neighborhood. Members from the surrounding community heard of the relocation and responded by literally lifting and carrying Chester Eastside from old to newness of life a block CEM_foodpicaway. In a rolling processional of grace and solidarity, local residents moved furniture, equipment, files, industrial freezers, and computers down the street and into St. Paul’s during the spring, summer, and winter months of 2014. “We thought we had good local partners [before the move],” remarked Rev. Warren. “Our move exposed the need for more intentional local relationships of support and engagement.”

Chester Eastside’s renewed emphasis on long-term sustainability through intentional local partnership has fueled and funded their neighborhood ministries ever since. They presently collaborate with Chester Upland School District, ecumenical congregations, synagogues, Widener University students, Boys and Girls Clubs, government leaders, and the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Chester Eastside also partners with local food consortiums and operates as one of the largest food distribution centers in Delaware County, providing monthly groceries and fresh produce to over 600 children and adults and over 112,000 meals annually.CEMbullboard

In 2014, Chester Eastside was also the recipient of a grant from the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s Covenant Fund. These dollars have benefited Chester Eastside’s Whole Child Program, an initiative that recruits, equips, and trains mentors from local congregations to walk alongside and tutor elementary-aged children in their After School programs. Many who participated in these childhood programs have gone on to graduate from high school and college, serve as current board members, and launch new initiatives through Chester Eastside.

About eight years ago, a current PhD candidate who was nurtured as a child by these very After School programs, partnered with Chester Eastside and local leaders to launch a Peace, Leadership, and Cultural Arts Camp. As a part of this now thriving local restorative justice initiative, youth from ages 12-18 gather for five days to engage in the creative arts. Young people develop spoken word pieces, participate in vibrant musical compositions, and explore dance as a means to counter raw feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger. The camp also incorporates annual trips to Broadway and has previously hosted speakers from South Africa who reflected on the power of reconciliation in the wake of apartheid. The Peace, Leadership, and Cultural Arts Camp continues to be an effective means to empower and equip local youth for community transformation. The ministry is now fully funded and coordinated by one of Chester Eastside’s partners. Initiatives like the Whole Child Program and the Peace, Leadership, and Cultural arts camp continue to empower young people as they resurrect personal and communal narratives out of despair and towards hope.

“The only thing people know about Chester is the bad news reported on the news,” remarked the Chair of the Board of Directors, William Henderson. “But there are a lot of positive things happening here, too.”

The witness and work of Chester Eastside’s staff, leaders, and community partners is one such good news story worthy of report. They have indeed been a vital part of the Spirit’s resurrection of both their ministry and an entire neighborhood. As Rev. Warren affirmed, “Chester Eastside is a spirit not a place…I know what happens here is nothing but the work of God.”

Click here for a bulletin insert of Chester Eastside’s Summer Enrichment Camp: CEM_Insert_2015A

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By timmreardon

Saluting Chester Eastside’s volunteers in style – News from Chester Eastside

News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Saluting Chester Eastside’s volunteers in style.


Those attending Chester Eastside’s Annual Christmas Program in December were treated to a dazzling
display of artistic talent. The year-end program and luncheon are Chester Eastside’s way of saying thank
you to the many volunteers who make its services to the community possible.

Along with inspiring renditions of traditional Christmas music was something called speed
painting, pictured above. Anyone who has not witnessed it first-hand can be left wondering if it’s even
possible. But there it was before the eyes of those attending the annual Christmastime event.

In front of the gathering in the sanctuary at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church stood a broad, brown
empty canvas on an easel. Then, as soul music with a special beat welled up, Desire Grover and her
young protege, Angel Pabon, began rhythmically daubing bright colors on the canvas in a seemingly
random fashion. But it soon became evident there was nothing random about it. Mary, Joseph, and the
infant Jesus were taking shape before their very eyes.

“It takes a lot of planning in advance,” said Desire, who’s been a mainstay for arts education at
Chester Eastside, Inc., over the years. “We’ve done everything from The Last Supper to a scene from
Harry Potter,”

For more examples of Desire and Angel’s artistry, see

Discovering and nurturing the talents of young people from Chester like Angel is in so many
ways what Chester Eastside is all about. Several years ago, one of the young men in a theater arts
program at the agency was picked to play the lead in a production of The Little Prince at People’s Light
and Theater of Philadelphia. Several of those who started out in the After School Program at Chester
Eastside have gone on to college and in one case earned a doctorate.

By timmreardon

Bringing two worlds closer together – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Bringing two worlds closer together

One thing Lewis “Pete” Washington and Anne Pike have in common is their deep devotion to the hundreds of people who come to the Chester Eastside Food Center for basic necessities every month. Another is their exceeding modest.

“I’m just a worker bee.” says Pete. In actuality, it’s hard to imagine the massive twice-a-week operation going off so smoothly without Pete at the center of it. People readily follow his directions in assembling the food and distributing it.

When Anne was asked how much time she puts in at Chester Eastside, she said, “Just a couple of hours a week,” a classic understatement of her volunteer time in the Food Center alone. Somehow she neglected to mention the monthly meetings of the Mothers’ Club she organized, along with time spent arranging for outside speakers. And the hours involved in collecting and giving out gifts to 100 families at Christmas time. To say nothing of the seemingly endless Board and committee meetings she faithfully attends. But in so many ways, Pete and Anne come from different worlds.

Giving back to his community.

Pete Washington remembers a very different East Side community where he grew up not far from the site that Chester Eastside, Inc., now calls home. “There were houses where there are vacant lots now,” he says, “and businesses – including two dry cleaners and a movie theater.” Things began to change in the 1970s, as the closing of one major industry after another took the props out from under Chester.

One of the positive influences in Pete’s life was a loving family that made sure he stayed inline. And the warning from a neighbor that “I’m going to tell your mom” was often enough to head off serious trouble.

The other was the round of activities like Boy Scouts and the church-sponsored basketball league that did a lot more than “keep me off the streets,” in terms of education and character development. “My mom made sure I attended those things,” says Pete.

Now, with child rearing more of a challenge than ever for people, those organized activities are all the more essential, he says.

Pete went on to earn a degree with a major in music at Cheyney University. But his talent as a drummer led him into a playing at bars and club, “a bad environment for me,” he says. Then an invitation to perform at a church opened up a whole new world for him. “I haven’t played at a bar or club since.” Joining the team at Chester Eastside, Inc., was a natural step. “I knew the Lord was calling me to do this,” says Pete.

Getting more back than one puts in

When Anne Pike drives the seven miles from her home in Middletown to Chester Eastside, Inc., it’s like entering a whole new world. “I get a lot more out of the experience than I put in,” she readily admits.

It all started when she heard an inspiring presentation by former Chester Eastside Pastor/Director Tom Torosian many years ago. Having known Chester in the days when people came from all over to shop and go to the movies, it was second nature for Anne to want to invest something of herself in this community.

Anne’s the kind of person who sees an opportunity and acts on it. She realized that people who came for food had other kinds of needs as well. That prompted her to create the Mothers’ Club. Now once a month women have an opportunity to learn new ways of coping with the practical problems of daily life – from healthy living to managing on a limited income.

It was a natural step to invite Anne to join the Board of Chester Eastside, Inc. Her hands-on experience with the people receiving the services is invaluable to the ones making policy decisions and raising the money that makes Chester Eastside possible.

This kind of commitment is infectious. Now Anne’s two daughters have caught the bug and are giving generously to the work of Chester Eastside

Together, Pete Washington and Anne Pike exemplify the special mix of gifts that make
Chester Eastside, Inc., the unique kind of agency it is.

By timmreardon

Chester Tries to Save Historic Church – Philadelphia Inquirer

The terra-cotta roof and sprawling stone building are iconic in Chester, a sign on East Ninth Street of the city’s prosperous past.The red wooden doors of the 120-year-old building are now warped, and its windows are boarded up.

CEM Inquirer 30 Dec 14

The 120-year-old Third Presbyterian Church may be headed for demolition. The Chester Historical Preservation Committee wants to restore it, and some officials want to find more ways to protect the city’s oldest buildings. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

The historic Third Presbyterian Church could face the wrecking ball – unless a local preservation group is able to save it and raise enough money to restore it.To the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the building is a crumbling liability. To the Chester Historical Preservation Committee, it is a local landmark that must be restored. And to some Chester officials, it is a wake-up call that the city should consider protecting its oldest buildings.

A contractor was ready to begin demolition this month. But that has been put on hold. Discussions are underway for the presbytery, which owns the building, to transfer the property deed to the Chester Historical Preservation Committee.

Preservation would be a massive undertaking for the small preservation group. Its activities typically include hosting tours and lectures.”We’ll need all the luck, help, prayers – whatever we can get,” said the group’s president, David Guleke.The group will also need money for repairs, which could cost millions of dollars.The church was built in 1895 and has not been used for worship in about 30 years, said Lawrence Davis, business manager for the Presbytery of Philadelphia.Until last year, the church housed Chester Eastside Ministries, a social service organization affiliated with the Presbytery of Philadelphia.The Presbytery of Philadelphia found the building structurally unsound and too expensive to maintain, Davis said. “Our interest is not to prop up a building that we felt was in danger of collapse,” he said.Chester Eastside moved into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church across the street. This fall, the presbytery’s contractor applied for a demolition permit for the old church building. “As soon as that crossed the city’s desk, it raised some red flags, because that church, it’s got some special history to it,” said Paul Fritz, a consultant to the city’s planning department. “And the architecture of it, too, is extraordinary.”

But officials in the economically troubled Delaware County city had no grounds on which to reject the demolition application, and no means of saving the building.Members of the Chester Historical Preservation Committee decided to step in. Guleke said the church, which claims to be home to the country’s first vacation Bible school and once drew crowds to its Sunday services, is a local treasure.”It’s just an amazing building,” he said. “The sanctuary would be perfect for a theater or something like that.”

Davis said last week that the presbytery was willing to transfer the property to the Chester Historical Preservation Committee at little or no cost.
The preservation group talks about raising money, applying for grants, and working with other local organizations to save the church.
Guleke said his organization would remain owner of the church but would hope to rent its Sunday school rooms as office space and use the sanctuary as a theater.Meanwhile, Chester will consider adopting an ordinance to protect its oldest buildings from demolition.

Approximately one-third of municipalities in Southeastern Pennsylvania require additional hearings and reviews before historical buildings are demolished, said Charlie Schmehl, vice president of the Bethlehem-based Urban Research & Development Corp.

“Most communities do something after they have a major loss,” said Schmehl, who is working as a consultant to help Chester rewrite its zoning code. “More and more are adopting demolition controls.”Davis said the presbytery had tried to discuss the future of the building with city officials for years but received little attention until they asked to demolish it.

Mayor John Linder said city officials had an interest in saving the church because it has “such nostalgic, historical value.”
Linder said he hoped that restoration efforts could be paired with new development on empty land nearby. But for now, the church’s future remains uncertain.

“It’s a great opportunity for the city to preserve that building, because it’s such an iconic building, so we’re hoping we can get everybody on board and really make it a real success story,” Guleke said. “I know that’s like pie in the sky, but that’s our ultimate goal.”


By timmreardon

Community Briefs: Chester Eastside children get holiday trip to Franklin Institute – Delco Times

Posted: 12/11/14, 7:51 AM EST |

Thanks to the generosity of one of Chester Eastside, Inc.’s long-time supporters, the children in the C.E. After-School Program will have a special treat during the holiday season: a trip to the Franklin Institute.
Franklin Institute
Congregation Beth Israel in Media is sponsoring the trip. In addition to arranging for the visit, including a meeting with Franklin Institute Senior Vice President Dr. Frederic Bertley, Beth Israel will cover the costs.

It all started the way so many good things happen at Chester Eastside — when somebody out there who wants to open up new opportunities for Chester children comes up with a good idea.

In this case, it was Elaine Wasekanes, a member of Beth Israel’s Social Action Committee, who planted the seed. She raised the possibility of the trip to the Franklin Institute with Dr. Stuart Pittel, a fellow committee member, knowing that he had connections with the Institute. A phone call to Rev. Bernice Warren, Chester Eastside’s director, got the wheels turning, and that good idea has now become a reality.

Said Rev. Warren, “The trip to the Franklin Institute is exactly the kind of experience for young people that Chester Eastside’s After-School Program is all about: education that opens up young minds to new and exciting possibilities.”

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By timmreardon

Building A New Vision of Chester – Philadelphia Inquirer

Building a new vision of Chester

Debbie DeSimone stands in front of two properties that she has purchased and rehabilitated into affordable rental units on Madison street in Chester. DeSimone’s Madison street properties are easily recognizable with their red doors and grey address placards. Monday, November 24, 2014. (C.F. Sanchez/Staff Photographer)

Laura McCrystal, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: Friday, November 28, 2014, 1:08 AM
Boarded-up homes served as stash houses for drugs. Vacant lots were filled with trash. Children took detours on their way home from school to avoid the area.
Those images defined a neighborhood for years, making Madison and Rose Streets some of the most dangerous in the city of Chester.
Today, Christmas lights and wreaths hang from brick rowhouses. Freshly painted red doors have replaced the wooden boards that covered the abandoned properties. A park with benches and flower boxes fills a plot of land that was known as a meeting place for drug dealers.
The park, built by a private landlord on property owned by the Chester Housing Authority, is perhaps the most tangible sign of efforts to transform a notoriously dangerous neighborhood into a family-friendly one. It is also the kind of effort that could “save Chester for Chester,” said Chester Housing Authority Director Steve Fischer, and allow lifelong residents of the struggling city to reclaim their own neighborhoods.
In one corner of the park, landlord Debbie DeSimone painted a message that she said was a new mantra for Chester’s east side: “Prove them wrong.”
With her husband and brother-in-law, DeSimone founded a real estate company called Best Homes and purchased and renovated scores of homes around Chester, including 16 in the neighborhood around Madison and Rose Streets.
DeSimone, who lives in Glenolden, said she saw an opportunity to refurbish old homes and rent them out at the same rate as other properties in Chester – but in better condition.
She was drawn to Madison and Rose Streets because the Chester Housing Authority was already working to improve the neighborhood.
The Chester Towers, between Madison Street and Avenue of the States, were demolished in 2007 and 2008 as part of a massive overhaul of the troubled public-housing agency. The last of the housing authority’s new senior apartment and office buildings on the site opened in 2013.
Though it took several years and millions of dollars in federal funding to remake the agency and reconstruct its buildings, “that’s, quite frankly, the easy part,” Fischer said.
“So now, as we look to what surrounds us, the vision [was] that the redevelopment that happened on this site would hopefully spread its wings and have even more of an impact on Chester.”
Major drug bust
He especially hoped that change would come to Madison and Rose Streets.
This fall, the neighborhood was the site of one of the largest drug busts in the city’s history. In what officials called the takedown of a drug-trafficking ring that had contributed to a spike in homicides, 35 suspects were arrested in late September. Prosecutors said the drug ring used stash houses in the area of Rose and Upland Streets – just a block from the new housing authority’s senior apartments.
Standing in the courtyard of a 10-unit apartment building that she is renovating on Madison Street, DeSimone grew quiet and raised her eyebrows when asked what the property looked like when she bought it.
“It was dilapidated,” she said. “It was used as a drug den.”
This week, she worked to complete renovations in time for tenants to move in Monday. The one-bedroom units rent for $700 per month – a typical rate in Chester, she said – and have new floors, paint, and appliances.
 ‘Clean and beautiful’
Cheryl Mitchell, 45, has spent her entire life on the east side of Chester. She used to avoid Madison Street. This fall, she moved into one of DeSimone’s apartments there, and she looks forward to letting her grandchildren play outside.
“They really made it safe,” she said. “And clean and beautiful.”
DeSimone covered a vacant lot on Madison Street with gravel, built a tall wooden fence, and filled the area with flower boxes, benches, and trees. But the neighborhood has not completely transformed. The new park sits between DeSimone’s apartment building and a bar.
Building a park next to a bar may not be typical, Fischer said, but the new trees and flower boxes send an important message about saving the neighborhood.
“It’s a statement for the community,” he said, “that we’re going to preserve this, come hell or high water.”
Jayson Gethers, 37, is a barber who has rented one of DeSimone’s homes on Madison Street for nearly two years. He met DeSimone before his current home was renovated and heard her vision for the neighborhood. It was difficult to imagine then, he said, but he has watched it take shape.
“If you stand on this street and go maybe one or two blocks over,” he said, “you can really feel the difference.”

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal
By timmreardon

Child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world – NY Times

A man walks with two children outside the Poverello House homeless shelter Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

October 29

The United States ranks near the bottom of the pack of wealthy nations on a measure of child poverty, according to a new report from UNICEF. Nearly one third of U.S. children live in households with an income below 60 percent of the national median income in 2008 – about $31,000 annually.

In the richest nation in the world, one in three kids live in poverty. Let that sink in.
The UNICEF report pegs the poverty definition to the 2008 median to account for the decline in income since then – incomes fell after the great recession, so measuring this way is an attempt to assess current poverty relative to how things stood before the downturn.

With 32.2 percent of children living below this line, the U.S. ranks 36th out of the 41 wealthy countries included in the UNICEF report. By contrast, only 5.3 percent of Norwegian kids currently meet this definition of poverty.

More alarmingly, the share of U.S. children living in poverty has actually increased by 2 percentage points since 2008. Overall, 24.2 million U.S. children were living in poverty in 2012, reflecting an increase of 1.7 million children since 2008. “Of all newly poor children in the OECD and/or EU, about a third are in the United States,” according to the report. On the other hand, 18 countries were actually able to reduce their childhood poverty rates over the same period.
The report finds considerable differences in childhood poverty at the state level. New Mexico, where more than four in ten kids live in poverty, has the highest overall rate at 41.9 percent. In New Hampshire only one in eight kids lives in a poor household, the lowest rate in the nation. Poverty rates are generally higher in Southern states, and lower in New England and Northern Plains states.

Map: Childhood poverty rates, by state

“Between 2006 and 2011, child poverty increased in 34 states,” according to the UNICEF report. “The largest increases were found in Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii and New Mexico, all of which have relatively small numbers of children. Meanwhile Mississippi and North Dakota saw notable decreases.”
There are some limits to the usefulness of benchmarking poverty in relation to a country’s median income. The median income in the U.S. is going to be very different than that in say, Estonia. So it means something very different to say that a given person is making 60 percent of median income in the former as opposed to the latter.
It’s also important to note that a household income of $30,000 puts you in roughly the richest 1.23 percent of the world’s population. The report doesn’t deal with the type of extreme poverty you see in the poor and developing worlds, where roughly 2.7 billion people are trying to get by on less than two dollars per day.
But UNICEF’s relative poverty measure is still useful in that economies are relative, too. Thirty thousand dollars goes much, much further in Eritrea than it does in Kansas. And while you might be able to get by – barely – raising a family on $30,000 in rural Kansas, try doing that in any of the nation’s pricey urban and suburban areas, where many of America’s poor actually live.
For the richest country in the world to also have one of the world’s highest childhood poverty rates is, frankly, an embarrassment. Like our high infant mortality rate, child poverty in the U.S. reflects the failure of policymakers to seriously grapple with the challenges facing the most vulnerable members of society.

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By timmreardon