In July of this year, a story about the violent death of a sophomore running back from Frankford High School, a school located in the inner-city of Philadelphia, caught our eye. Head coach, Bill Systma, had taken to twitter to post about his football players and the unimaginable grief as Angelo Walker was to be the third players’ funeral he would attend over the past three years.
Gripped by the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic in an already devastated city, our adopted home of Philadelphia was also being ravaged by a massive increase in gun violence on our youth, rampant and full view opioid use, and poverty that looks to be unrecoverable for decades to come.
Zach, Julie, and I felt called to reach out to Coach Systma to offer our support and to find out how we might be able to help him – whatever that entailed.
Through a series of contacts made to ultimately connect with Coach Systma, we learned about ODAAP (Open Door Abuse Awareness Program). I met Coach Valencia Peterson and Coach Nick Lincoln, and learned about their Beyond the Field initiative. I was invited to meet them and cook breakfast for the Frankford High School football players attending a camp in Honeybrook, PA (Camp at Old Mill) the gathering was to help them heal from the trauma they were experiencing in their community.
I went to the Camp at Old Mill, cooked for the boys, met the coaches and players, and began to learn about the true challenges in their community. Willing to share, I heard some of the most tragic life-experiences these young men had endured, how the players considered football their lifeline, and I began to see how untethered this situation had become – especially if the city of Philadelphia had to shut football down in the fall due to the ongoing fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without their “lifeline,” how could we even conceive of the streets being safer or the incidence of gun violence not skyrocketing further? Passionate in our desire to do something, I began an email campaign to the city of Philadelphia’s Athletic Director and used my experience as a mom (of four sons who found peace and healing through a painful divorce in their sports), to make my case to keep the football players on the field.
Additionally, in a Zoom press conference during the Eagles training camp, Zach broke from the topic of all things Eagles and spoke directly and unwaveringly to Governor Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kinney about his life not being anywhere near as difficult as what the Philly youth are experiencing, yet football and the focus it required saved him during tough times. Sadly both of our efforts fell on deaf ears. The day I took Julie to Honeybrook to meet my new friends, we received confirmation that football in Philly was virtual for the foreseeable future.
That news was the spark that ignited what has been the most profoundly impactful 3 months of the Ertz Family Foundation. Together with Coaches Systma, Lincoln and Peterson, we joined forces with ODAAP, Timoteo Sports, and FCA to find adequate space and an alternative program for the 150 athletes most devastated by the loss of their football season.
The Beyond the Field program happened in large part thanks to an open field run by a non-profit (Lighthouse 1893), the programming run by Timoteo, the coaching and on the field work of ODAAP, the faith based leadership of FCA and Young Life, and funding, support, and awareness from the Ertz Family Foundation.
Since September 1st, we ran a free, COVID-19 safe program two days per week at the Lighthouse Field in Kensington. By giving the student athletes a workout, drills, skills training, mentorship, coaching, and food, we provided the players with hope, friendship, and the chance to feel cared for and their battles understood. But there was so much more. By putting our proverbial ears to the ground, we discovered that their basic needs outside of football also had to be met. Asking for a plethora of help from school and career support, WiFi access, food, job and financial development, and a safe place away from their homes – we responded by forming the Philly Bridge Project, a collaboration of small non-profits able to respond quickly and nimbly to the needs of each athlete.
Starting with the workouts, we then planned a resource fair for the athletes and their parents/guardians. We invited local admissions counselors from junior and 4-year colleges, trade schools, and representatives from each branch of the military to help answer questions and guide the athletes through the maze of high school graduation requirements and process for next steps – another major need lost to the youth in our program.
The next phase of our current project came together when we connected with the Maxwell Football Club and several of their generous donors. Those meetings opened the door for us to truly pour into each young person in a holistic way that ultimately gave us the light we needed to create a true example of God’s Kingdom for our kids. The partnership resulted in a recruiting showcase that was a pivotal moment for all of us and the opportunity to launch a permanent partnership with the Maxwell Football Club and The Athletes Corner based on a shared mission to spread faith, hope, and God’s love to the most underserved youth in Philly.
The final phase of our current project came together with the knowledge that we wanted to maximize our support to the families that we serve. With the help of donors and new partners, we were able to do a Thanksgiving food basket giving event for our Philly Bridge families, launch a Holiday Touchdowns for Meals program with The Athletes Corner and Feed America to provide 100,000 meals in Philly over the holidays, and we are hosting a coat and outerwear giving event for more than 1,000 adults and children on December 19th for both the North Philadelphia and Kensington areas. With Matthew 25: 36-40 as our guiding light, we walk with our hearts connected to those most in need.
We are far from done though! The most important part lies ahead of us. With the weather changing, the pandemic raging, and no relief in sight to the atrocities in these communities, our youth and their families are in need of our continued support. The Grace and Peace Community Center building in North Philadelphia is the perfect place for us to continue what we started on the field. With ongoing support, we will be able to remodel the building, build a kitchen that will serve as a much-needed food insecurity resource, add additional space for programming, build a large sanctuary for Sunday services, and be open to the community around the clock in order to maximize our reach. Additionally, we will be able to better support the on-going funding needs of our Philly Bridge partners so that they can build more robust programming to fully affect the lives of the youth and families served – thus giving us all an opportunity to begin our transformative mission to substantially affect their lives with God’s Love.
We feel that our hearts are aligned with our Philly Bridge partners and are on the exact same path to create substantive
changes in the most needed areas. Born from a simple desire to create opportunity and hope for the youth most profoundly affected by the shut-downs, we have built a forever bond that is singularly focused on the bridge that we have created to bind us together. From there, the bridge to and from our collaboration partners allows us to completely pour into each person that we serve.
With future support from funding partners and our generous donors, we are confident that we will build a permanent hook – both on the field and at Grace and Peace Community Center that gives kids an outlet as well as the critical message that we are here to walk alongside each young person in a holistic way to be a source of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual support. Our hope with the Philly Bridge Project is to scale the program to each city that hosts an NFL team.