‘Everyday Heroes’ honored at McPherson Square Library

Two years ago, Ray Gant and vo­lun­teers from The Ray of Hope Pro­ject cleaned up McPh­er­son Square. This Sat­urday, he'll be cel­eb­rated at McPh­er­son Square Lib­rary at a book sign­ing that pro­files Gant and oth­er com­munity lead­ers.

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 sne­w­house@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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