Gwen Blackshear

“Dr. Gwen credits her success to her experiences at North Light and wants that experience for others now. ‘North Light will help them realize that there are limitless possibilities. That they can really go anywhere, be anybody they want to be, do anything.'”

Dr. Blackshear’s Background

Neither of her parents had beyond a high school diploma. In tenth grade, Gwen began attending Roxborough High School – a school long classified as “persistently dangerous” by the Philadelphia School District. Despite her parent’s limited educational attainment, Gwen knew she wanted something more for herself. North Light Community Center provided guidance and encouragement as she explored what her dreams could mean.

North Light’s Impact

Gwen applied to the Summer Career Exploration Program and was accepted the summer after she started at Roxborough. North Light tailored the experience to Gwen’s interest in law. Over three years, she had the opportunity to work with the Philadelphia Court of Common Please as well as the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. Despite success in these experiences – including being recognized as one of the most success participants – she came to understand her passion wasn’t for law. Ultimately, because of the investment and guidance from North Light, Gwen decided to pursue teaching.

Her Life Now

Today, Gwen is active in giving back – offering inspiration and education to students in the Philadelphia School District. After completing her Bachelor of Arts degree at Penn State, she went on to earn a Master of Education from Lincoln University and finally a Doctorate of Education Degree in Educational Leadership and Management from Drexel University. Dr. Gwen credits her success to her experiences at North Light and wants that experience for others now. “North Light will help them realize that there are limitless possibilities. That they can really go anywhere, be anybody they want to be, do anything.”

North Light COVID-19 Response

North Light COVID-19 Response

The coronavirus pandemic has put people around the globe in difficult positions, in terms of finance, health, and otherwise. In the Manayunk/Roxborough communities this is no different. Particularly in urban and densely populated communities, stress and tension can run even higher. North Light has worked hard to support its communities while prioritizing the health of constituents, staff, and volunteers.

North Light has been agile and adaptable during these difficult times. We offered childcare for essential workers upon reopening in June. Parents continued to express the need for childcare and we responded by running our annual Summer Camp with strict social distancing and cleaning protocols to ensure a safe and fun environment for all 63 children enrolled.

Our college and career program transitioned to online courses and offered personal development seminars throughout the summer. As many teens continue to struggle with being isolated, we chose to connect with them virtually to ensure we didn’t lose touch and could encourage them during these challenging and uncertain times.

Our Emergency Service Program continued to operate our Food Pantry. Although we couldn’t maintain our Choice model which allows the community to shop, we were able to provide prepackaged bags and boxes of food twice weekly. We also created a menu system for our monthly distribution of nonperishable items, which allowed some personalized food choices. In order to protect our most vulnerable community members, such as elderly and disabled residents, North Light also now delivers food every day that our food cupboard operates, directly to the doorsteps (contactless delivery) of those most susceptible to the effects of the coronavirus.

Thanks to Green Tree Community Health, the Philadelphia Foundation’s COVID19 Fund, FEMA through the Emergency Food & Shelter Program (EFSP) and Acme’s Foundation, North Light received funding to support growing needs for food as well as rent, utility and mortgage assistance.

Although we know that things will not be the same as they were before the coronavirus hit we recognize that this time has created opportunities to expand and meet the new needs of our community. North Light has served the Manyaunk and Roxborough neighborhoods for 84 years. We were developed during The Great Depression, survived a World War, and we will continue to grow and meet the evolving needs of our communities. We will continue to serve people to the best extent that our capacity allows, and connect people to the services that they need. Please never hesitate to reach out. We will get through this together, though physically distanced.

Renee Deas

Renee’s Background

Renee knew certain career opportunities were closed to her. Without experience, many employers were unwilling to hire a young person from her neighborhood. Philadelphia has long struggled with poverty and privilege co-existing in close proximity. “It’s a problem often among young people here,” notes economist Neeta Fogg, “If you start off detached from the labor market, you will never get in it.” For Renee, North Light Community Center would be the bridge to new experiences and opportunities.

What did North Light do?

In the 15 years Renee has been involved with North Light, she has participated in a range of activities that helped build her work ethic, her skills, and her vision for a bigger future. North Light staff coached and mentored her, provided her first college visits, and helped her gain experience through her first summer job. As part of the Summer Career Exploration Program, Renee learned how to write cover letters and resumes and found her experiences opened new doors for her.

Her Life Now

For many years Renee volunteered at North Light as a coach because she experienced the transformational power in her own life. She has completed college and entering a Master’s degree program for School Counseling. As a teacher and coach, Renee understands what it takes to succeed. Without support from North Light with high school homework, SAT prep, and work experience, she might be one of the many who struggle to lead productive and full lives. “I am truly blessed to be an active member of the North Light family,” Renee says. “Thank you.”

Jesse’s Farwell Blog Post

I remember walking into North Light for the first time for my interview, all of the colors and the activities that were taking place in a relatively small space. I remember how it felt like home so quickly. As a 24 year old being offered a job as a Director of anything, I was mesmerized by the opportunity to serve in a leadership role at such a young age. Without much consideration of other options, I accepted the job.

It did not take long for me to realize that I had become part of a very special place. Though I had grown up just 30 minutes away (depending on traffic), I had never heard of North Light before applying for the Development Director job. Even today, North Light still remains relatively insulated to the communities it serves, and not enough people know about this amazing place. As a millennial, I know all too well about how community is fading away. A toxic lack of trust in neighbors and systems has eroded the social fabric that made humans such a powerful species. North Light uniquely builds community with a continuum of support that is focused primarily, though not exclusively, on those most in need.

The continuum of childcare, workforce development, and emergency services creates a space for people of all ages and backgrounds to find support. North Light undoubtedly deserves more support to continue to serve the Manayunk and Roxborough communities, as well as Philadelphia at large. The most important thing that North Light brings to the table is 84 years of honest and good work, which makes it the most trusted place in thousands of people’s lives. Yet I learned firsthand how difficult raising money for the good work of the organization is. I was convinced when I walked through the doors nearly two years ago that I would be able to double North Light’s revenues and turn it from an organization that fought to survive to one that could thrive. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in this.

There are so many people and systems to blame, but it would all be a waste of time. What is more important to focus on is that, despite decades of struggle, North Light continues to be there for its communities and all people in need who come through its doors. Griity and resilient are not often traits that are associated with an organization, but there are few other words that better describe North Light.

North Light has a reliable support base that helps the organization get by each year – and I am so grateful for everyone who is a part of this network – but the reality of the matter is that there is a huge need for more. I hope that as I move to DC and work in the advocacy and policy space more, I am able to ultimately fulfill my initial goal of doubling the organization’s revenues by creating new funding streams that lift up North Light and other organizations like it, providing support to some of our society’s most vulnerable populations. Increased support in the short-term would reduce long-term costs that continuously drive our nation’s debt higher, ultimately saving money for our society. It will take a long time for our economy to reorganize itself so priority is given to prevention. In the meantime, we will need to rely on support from our more privileged neighbors to support those who have less. This is not such a bad thing, as it brings out the true essence of community: neighbors helping neighbors.

I want to thank all of the incredible people that I have met and am so sad that I will not be able to say my goodbyes because of the coronavirus. I have learned so much from our constituents, volunteers, staff, donors, board, and other community members. I will never forget the lessons I learned and will take them through the rest of my life, hopefully to spread community around the world. As for North Light, I hope that it is given the opportunity to thrive and build community where it always has.


Mario on his growth in TEEMworks

Mario’s Background

Mario was raised in a tough neighborhood and made some bad decisions early in life. He was ultimately arrested as a teenager for a felony and struggled to find meaningful employment after serving his time. Without a job it became very hard to support himself and his children, so Mario struggled to remain optimistic. TEEMworks helped Mario change his life around by helping him realize opportunities in his future.

What did TEEMworks do?

As a graduate of the first TEEMworks cohort, Mario spent six weeks developing soft skills, working on his resume, and preparing for a trades-related career. He says that as great as the information he learned was, the most value was just giving him a place to go outside his house and something to look forward to. As his spirits lifted, his talents emerged, and he became an informal mentor to some of the other students in his cohort. Having graduated high school in 1995, it was the first time that Mario had been in a classroom setting in a while. It was a nice opportunity to reset and refocus, which ultimately led him to chances to work jobs he enjoyed. Mario also opened a savings account at Bryn Mawr Trust through the program, which was the first savings account he ever had.

After TEEMworks

Mario’s first job after TEEMworks was in a shop on Main Street that was moving to a new location in Manayunk and had to pack up their basement, which had become a dumping location. Mario spent about a month working everyday to help clean up, organize, and ultimately move inventory to the new location. He did such a good job that his name quickly became known by multiple Manayunk store owners who contracted him. His work ethic and attitude were admired by all who hired him as he grew the savings account he started through TEEMworks. After months of working part-time jobs, Mario interviewed and got a full-time job working for a high end hotel chain in Philadelphia. He continues to learn and grow, and sees TEEMworks as having started a second chance at life for him.