Imagine you’re a kid growing up in North Philadelphia in neighborhoods where drug addiction is common, there’s pressure to join gangs and the sound of gunshots punctuates your life.
Politicians talk about crime and violence in Philadelphia and promise to change things for the better. But Eagles football player Zach Ertz and his soccer star wife, Julie Ertz, are taking concrete steps to help kids stay out of trouble through their Ertz Family Foundation.
Partnering with Pastor Rob Whitmire of Grace and Peace Community Fellowship, they are remodeling a building that was given to the church to open the House of Hope, a place where kids from the Hunting Park neighborhood can come after school and on weekends to get a snack, do their homework and be mentored, keeping their feet on the right path, the path that leads away from the temptation of drugs, violence and the gangster life that beckons around them.
“Julie and I recognize a need to bring hope and love to the Philadelphia community through our House of Hope Project,” said Zach Ertz. “It is our greatest desire to leave a lasting impact to kids and families in Philadelphia commensurate with the love we have felt.”
Lisa Ertz, Zach’s mom, runs the foundation day-to-day since her son and daughter-in-law are busy with their athletic careers.
“It’s really coming together,” Lisa Ertz said. They hope to break ground on the renovations this October and have the House of Hope, at 1300 W. Hunting Park Avenue, open its doors sometime next year.
“Last year (during the pandemic) things went sideways for a lot of kids in Philly,” she said. While suburban kids have Wi-Fi and computers to do their homework, city kids “might be in a car in a parking lot trying to catch Wi-Fi at Taco Bell. It was very clear to us that kids in North Philly were hit by a very different pandemic. The amount of services we take for granted were not available of all for these kids.”
“When the city shut sports down it kind of took away the lifeline for a lot of kids from 3 to 6 p.m. every day,” Lisa Ertz said. Prior to the pandemic “kids participated in sports and had a locker room of teammates.” But that went away and they started to hang around on the streets after school during the “witching time.”
“My son and daughter-in-law decided to do something,” she said. They ran a program for kids to provide skills and took precautions against COVID, she said.
“We didn’t have one case,” said Lisa Ertz. “The kids wore masks. We were super careful.”
The idea for the House of Hope grew from that program.
They are partnering with Rev. Pastor Rob Whitmire, the Pastor of Grace and Peace Community Fellowship and executive director of Timoteo Sports for the House of Hope program.
“The pastor has his ear to the ground,” said Lisa Ertz. “He knows what kids need.” In addition to activities and food, the kids will get help with homework and filling out college and job applications.
So far the foundation has raised $500,000 for the House of Hope and needs to garner another $450,000 to complete the renovations and “bake in” three years of operating expenses, she said.
“This is Zach and Julie’s legacy project to the city,” said Lisa Ertz. “If Jesus were to come back to earth, he would be at the corner of Kensington and Allegheny.”
She expects 300 to 500 kids who Whitmire works with through his youth sports organization to come to House of Hope.
“That is just the beginning,” said Lisa Ertz. “These are kids that have told Pastor Rob over the years they need help.”
“With food insecurity and gun violence, getting kids off the street and to a safe place helps close the gap between kids who have and kids who have not,” she said.
The kids often do not have enough to eat, she said. So they are also partnering with the Sunday Love project, which will supply food for kids who come to the House of Hope, she said. The building will have a kitchen and office space.
“How do we restore hope, not just to our community but to our city?” asked Whitmire. “The Lord brought us together with the Ertz foundation.”
Whitmire said the church will hold services at the renovated building on Sundays, then the same large common area on the first floor will become a resource for the kids and the community during the remainder of the week. There will be computers and Wi-Fi, he said.
“A lot of our kids want to go to college and do not have an idea how to get there,” he said. In addition to learning how to write resumes and college applications, they will learn interview etiquette.
“We will do mock interviews,” he said. They will “encourage them to think about what they want to do as far as their career path.”
“We want to be a one-stop shop to serve young people as well as their families,” said Whitmire. “We realize we are not their parents. We want to bless their families with resources as well, not just young people but their entire household.”