Loving Inner-city Kids in Philadelphia
“I’ve learned so much from them and they don’t even know it,” Ashley Reese says of the students she works with at an after-school program. She loves teaching them about different cultures, issues of body image, and healthy eating.
When Ashley Reese ’09 thinks of missionaries, she doesn’t think of herself. But her new neighbors in Philadelphia tell her otherwise.
Originally from Moreno Valley, California, Reese moved to Philadelphia after graduation from SPU to participate in Mission Year, a yearlong urban ministry program focused on Christian service and discipleship. Reese learned about the program from Owen Sallee, coordinator for urban and global involvement at Seattle Pacific. “Initially, I was attracted to their slogan: ‘Love God; love people; nothing else matters,’” says Reese, who double-majored in sociology and philosophy at SPU.
Less than a week after applying to Mission Year, Reese was accepted. But she wanted confirmation that it was the right path for her. Tali Hairston, director of the John Perkins Center at SPU and a mentor for Reese, encouraged her to say yes to the program. “I said to myself, ‘Well, if Tali gives the OK, then I’m definitely doing it,’” she remembers.
Although Reese says she would have gone wherever she was needed, she hadn’t pictured herself working with kids. “I never thought I’d be dealing with little people,” says Reese of her assignment with an after-school program for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. “On the one hand, they will drive you crazy … but they’re also a joy. If you’re having a bad day, they’ll hug you and love on you.”
She’s learned to focus on meeting the needs of each individual student. “You have to let them know they have abilities and get them to a place where they can think critically,” she says. “We’re just prodding them, helping them find their voice.”
When Reese is not at the after-school program, she’s volunteering at City Center Academy, a high school where she tutors students in math. She also does everything from menial tasks to talking about their futures with students in the guidance office.
She also volunteers at E³Power (Education, Empowerment, Employment), a place for teens to work toward earning a GED and learn life skills. Her role at E³Power can be challenging, says Reese, “because I’m the same age as some of the students.” But it’s particularly meaningful because she gets to see teens — some with tough histories, some without parental support — who are taking control of their education and future.
In the Lincoln neighborhood of Philadelphia, Reese has invested time in getting to know her neighbors, who are primarily black, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. “There’s an emphasis on building community in our house,” says Reese of the neighborhood home where she lives with other Mission Year volunteers. “I love the fact that I know my neighbors; they’re teaching me about how to keep hope.”
Reese’s humility and openness to people are qualities that stand out to her friends and SPU mentors. “She goes into a situation to be transformed,” says Sallee of Reese. “She believes that everybody’s got assets to bring to the table.”
When she speaks of leadership, Reese speaks about community again. “When Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, it wasn’t just about him; it was a collective movement.”
Although Reese doesn’t yet know what’s next for her after Mission Year, she’s confident that whatever she does will involve working with people. And she hopes her work will continue to shape her into the kind of leader she wants to be.
“Leaders are the people who get up every day, make a difference, but maybe don’t get recognition,” she says. “They’re not focused on themselves, but on their community and on God.”
Rachel Ellis Hammer '07
Ashley Reese '09
Charley "Char" Beck '08 and Daniel "Skiff" Skiffington '08
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