Growing up, Philadelphia was the last place I wanted to live. It was dirty, the news would always tell me about rape, murder, drugs, and other bad news. Nothing seemed positive except for when passing by via 76 I would see the Wyland-esque mural of whales and sea life on a building off the Schuylkill River. Yet while some of this remains true, over time, I have learned it isn’t so bad.
I came here for work — to be closer to professional athletes/clients and my position at a local university. I came here to make this a healthier city. Most of my day is spent visiting schools in the School District of Philadelphia ranging from K-12 in all parts of the city. Some schools are surrounded by homes with no glass on the windows, some are surrounded by tree lined streets with no trash on the ground. I enter schools where teens have criminal records. I go through metal detectors. I see kids fight. I see kids fight with their teachers. I see kids leave school in the middle of the day. I see parents fight with staff. I see children come in with a belly ache because they can’t afford breakfast in their own home. Here, life is completely different than where I grew up.
To walk into a school and give advice on healthy eating, isn’t easy. Most families don’t have access to a legit grocery store. And don’t suggest Whole Foods because most are intimidated — it’s only for the “rich”. You get creative. You show them local farmer’s markets and how to eat healthy at the corner store. You let them know that you are here and you understand that just because I grew up privileged to have a full belly and full of good nutrition, it doesn’t mean I don’t want the same for them.
The day I put an apron on a gang member and told him his face looked really silly with all his tattoos, was the day I got respect. I was someone in someone’s life that didn’t cuss him out, tell him he was going to fail. I was naive and honest, hopeful, and open to talk. He laughed. I gave the kid a knife. He didn’t stab me. He learned to chop and dice. He told me one day he would like to work in a restaurant. I realized that day I was possibly the only person who was willing to give him the tools to have the confidence to do that. And after awhile, these are the kids that give you high fives, head nods in the hall, ask you what food we are making the next visit. This place isn’t so bad because the fact is, every one here is willing to give you a chance — you just have to take them up on the offer.
Last night I came to help out at Movies on the Bloc; an event that shows a documentary at a school in the city, and partners with local groups to promote the theme of the movie. “Bite Size” was the movie. Prior to arriving, I was nervous. It was West Philly. I was always told it was bad news. But when I arrived, the cutest kids were playing in the street with the fire hydrant cooling them off during a heat wave. The sound of kids laughing. Parents asking what is going on at the school. I informed them, I told them to come join us — it was free. They were happy.
We brought goodies and made fresh salsa. Kids played basketball. A lady did Zumba. A man brought a bike-powered smoothie machine. It was all about being active and eating healthy. Not a one negative soul came that night. The music was playing, the kids were laughing. For being a rough neighborhood, I saw this community as a supportive and loving group of people that too, were wiling to give people a chance to see what they were really about and what they really were seeking — equality and the notion that we are all good people.
Through my job as a dietitian in this city, it has made me learn that there is a lot of work to do. Half my life is spent with millionaires that are professional athletes. The other, some live in homeless shelters, pregnant at 14 years old, or caregivers just trying to get by. Thing is, it is important to open your eyes to what is around you — in all areas of a city, community, or wherever you are. Within all of it, lies hope and positivity. I guess what I am trying to say to you is that, just like I tell the kids in school when trying a new recipe or vegetable, “Don’t knock it till you’ve truly tried it.” There is a lot of love in the city, just give it a chance and it will love you back.