Making a house a home

A group of Bok high-schoolers, along with a local nonprofit, are dedicating their after-school hours to restoring confiscated drug dens into liveable spaces.

By Gwyn Driskill
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted May. 7, 2009

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District Attorney Lynne Abraham, center, visits the Bok Construction Club members at 907 Cantrell St., where the students are hard at work remodeling a two-bedroom residence for a first-time home buyer (Photo Courtesy of Anthony Lamorgia).

Andrew Meak doesn't have any ordinary after-school job. He joins 14 others from Edward Bok Tech, Eighth and Mifflin streets, for the school's Construction Club when classes let out. The students take great pride in their work, from installing insulation to hammering up baseboards, and their choice of what to revamp is more transformative to a neighborhood than just a coat of new paint.

Instead of picking any old house, these young builders are taking former area drug houses confiscated by the City and rehabbing them back into livable shape. The 15 are currently working on a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home at 907 Cantrell St. The students painted and installed plumbing on the second floor -- all before there was electricity in the house. The walls, once covered in graffiti, are now sealed and coated in beautiful earthy browns and sky blues. New light fixtures, refrigerator, washer, dryer and shower stall soon will be put in. The group also added insulation and a new fuse box. The once boarded-up windows have been replaced with sparkling, easy-to-open-and-close white panes.

"At the end of the day, I like knowing that I've accomplished something," Meak, a 16-year-old from the 2000 block of South 16th Street, said.

The skills the junior is learning on the job could help him find full-time employment after graduation, as well.

With the support of nonprofit Sunrise Philadelphia Inc., the club gets the financial backing it needs to complete the home makeovers. Now in its 10th year, the free after-school and summer programs range from homework help and gym classes for elementary students to robotics and cosmetology classes for older kids.

About six years ago, company founder and CFO Loretta Crea read about a house sold by the City to a local nonprofit. She wrote to District Attorney Lynne Abraham, asking for a similar arrangement with Sunrise. Crea's request was granted after going through the proposal process and, in 2004, Sunrise purchased a residence at 427 McClellan St. for the bargain-basement price of $1. It had been confiscated by the D.A.'s office during a drug investigation.

Once the sale to Sunrise was completed, Crea turned the house over to the nonprofit's Construction Club, one of the organization's most popular groups where high-schoolers with interests in home repair are given introductions to plumbing, carpentry, electricity and masonry work. At the initial walk-through, the property certainly wasn't much to look at.

"You wouldn't believe the mess that was in there," Mark Amorosi, Sunrise's program director, said.

Drug paraphernalia, garbage and old mattresses littered the floor, while graffiti covered the walls. Using the programs' budget, Sunrise hired a professional cleaning service to dispose of the waste and ensure the house was safe for the students. Then the latter went to work. For three years, the pupils worked from 3:04 p.m., when they got out of school until 6 p.m. to repair the house. In '06, a first-time home buyer purchased the place for about $75,000, which was below market value.

Senior Chethtra Yen is one of 15 Bok students working on the current project, which is slated to be completed later this year (Photo Courtesy of Anthony Lamorgia).

The project was such a success Crea wanted to keep it going. She wrote another letter to the D.A., submitted another proposal and searched the list of confiscated properties for one that was more conveniently located to Bok. When one appeared on the list, Crea handed another dollar to the D.A.'s office and the Construction Club hit the ground running. The latest property was purchased at the start of the current school year.

"I think the kids are working much more diligently this time," she said. "The first project was a good model. The house is closer to school, so they are able to spend less time walking there and more time working."

Amorosi estimated the house will be done within a year, rather than the three it took for the McClellan project. A new group has joined up for the latest project. Amorosi said they're trying to keep membership to under 20 students.

Club faculty supervisor Sam Ginsburg and his right-hand man, Bok senior Eric Schreiber, who doubles as project foreman, make sure members have enough work to keep them occupied. Ginsburg receives the necessary materials a day in advance, so he's able to delegate tasks when the students arrive on site. Amorosi said jobs are determined by a teacher who analyzes the members' skill levels. Students do one house at a time, which helps maintain their focus.

At Abraham's suggestion, the group working on the current project rebuilt the entrance to the second-floor bathroom and installed a sink, even though there had never been one there before. All of the work, from stripping the floors to installing the appliances, was done by the students. Club members receive a small stipend for the hours they spend on the job and, while they like making money, they also take immense pride in what they are doing.

Senior Chethtra Yen, known as the club's "demolition man," is kept busy at the site.

"I like to take things apart," the resident of the 1900 block of South 20th Street said.

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Comments 1 - 3 of 3
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1. FILLMORE said... on Jun 4, 2009 at 03:08PM


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2. Anh said... on Jun 22, 2009 at 03:03PM

“I wish I was there.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jun 1, 2012 at 01:27AM

“This is a great story Im just now reading wow Bok how have times changed....I wish our 2008 class did this great job guys!”


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