When Ray Gant visits the McPherson Square Library this weekend to sign copies of a book honoring his work around Philadelphia, he will be able to see proof that his work has made a difference.
Right outside the library is McPherson Square, which has been known as a haven for drug users for years. Gant helped clean up the park with his group, “The Ray of Hope Project,” two years ago. Gant’s efforts are among many by groups and individuals working to turn the park around.
Now, McPherson Square has a brand new playground, which was built at the end of September — that construction was a combined effort of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Impact Service Corporation, Wells Fargo, Philadelphia Flyers Charities and KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that builds playgrounds in just a day.
Developments like the new playground are proof positive that Gant’s philosophy — that neighborhood rejuvenation comes from volunteer construction and clean-ups of streets, yards, playgrounds and parks — can have a huge effect.
The Ray of Hope Project, which Gant co-founded with Willard Bostock, deploys volunteers and fixes up the decaying homes of low-income families and senior citizens across Philadelphia. They’ve repaired 80 homes since 2002, providing valuable construction services completely free of charge, and also actively organized many neighborhood clean-ups, like in McPherson Square.
“I really feel honored,” said Gant, 56, of Frankford, about being selected for the book, Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Neighborhood, One Nonprofit at a Time, which features photographs by Paul Mobley and text by Katrina Fried.
Other local “everyday heroes” in the book include Anne Mahlum, founder of “Back on My Feet,” a Philadelphia running program for the homeless, and Jay Scott, co-executive director of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, based in Wynnewood, which raises money for the fight against childhood cancer.
“It’s a privilege to be among those folks,” Gant said. “Knowing where I come from, and how I got here, and the stuff that we’ve been doing — it’s an honor.”
“What happened when we first started was we had an unlimited resource of volunteers that were coming from the halfway houses here in the city, and formerly incarcerated people,” Gant told Star. ”In the past couple of years we’ve been focused on neighborhood revitalization work.”
“Now, we’re looking to create a program that will allow us to go into some of these vacant homes and rehab them so that low-income families can get affordable housing,” he added.
Gant started The Ray of Hope Project after a life of drug abuse and drug dealing that in 1987 landed him in prison for 12 years, including two years spent in solitary confinement.
The community work he does now is a way of repairing the damage he did in his past, Gant said in the interview that is featured in Everyday Heroes.
“I’m the guy that goes into all the areas of the city that other people are scared to go into — the threatening, high-crime, drug-infested neighborhoods,” Gant says in the book. “People often ask me why I do it. I say, ‘Because somebody has to.’”
In the future, Gant hopes to get support from the city with his idea of rehabilitating abandoned, vacant homes for new families.
“Neighborhoods that have been blighted all these years can have a different look,” Gant said. “Just get it started and let it have a snowball effect. Doing houses in these inner city communities is just a great start.”
Ray Gant will be at McPherson Square Library from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Nov. 17 signing copies of Everyday Heroes. Copies will be on sale for $45 to raise money for The Ray of Hope Project.
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.