Gloria Guard ’67
People’s Emergency Center and the Geometric Power of Healing
By Aimee Dolaway Olivo ’99
It was a gray, dismal day. The sort of day where you alternately take out and put away your umbrella because it is raining, but just barely. Against that backdrop, a few things particularly stood out: the mosaic planter of blues and greens that seemed to be shimmering and the mural on the side of the building that drew your eyes up and away from the cracked sidewalk. There was a new, modern building with a colorful playground that my own three-year-old would have begged to play on and a beautiful garden designed to ensure something would be blooming or showing off deep color each and every season.
I was in west Philadelphia in the neighborhood of West Powelton, adjacent to the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Had I been walking down that street twenty years ago, I would have walked by nearly 100 boarded up, empty properties. I would have passed abandoned lots strewn with cars and discarded needles and filled with drug dealers.
Instead, thanks to the work of the People’s Emergency Center and their spin-off community development corporation, I was in a vibrant, emergent neighborhood. A neighborhood that has 196 new units of housing and free wireless high-speed Internet access. A neighborhood that is attracting new businesses and whose main park has changed from one that formerly seemed to welcome drug dealers and addicts to one that now welcomes neighbors walking their dogs and local workers enjoying the sun on their lunch hour.
Much of this work is thanks to Gloria Guard ’67, who assumed leadership of the People’s Emergency Center, Pennsylvania’s oldest and most comprehensive agency serving homeless women and children, 25 years ago.
Guard counts her membership in various communities to be one of the blessings of her life. This community foundation in social justice began at home; her early years were spent in a small Indiana town. Her father, a native of that town, and her mother, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, instilled this in their family. It continued when the family moved to Washington, D.C., and Guard attended a high school run by Ursuline sisters where Guard was president of the Catholic Schools Mission Crusade. At Trinity, Guard admits that her studies weren’t her main focus. Instead, she let herself become wholly caught up in the social movement of the 1960s. She and her Trinity friends heard Stokely Carmichael speak at Howard University and they marched and rallied on the National Mall. Later, in Philadelphia, Guard joined with other young social activists to work for social change in the city.
“There’s just something amazing and unique about being part of social change. At least one of the special things about this is that I am so keenly aware of being a part of a larger community, a larger energy that is dedicated to doing the right thing, to moving our generation and our world forward.”
- Gloria Guard, Sower’s Seed Lecture, February 11, 2009
For the past 25 years, Guard has been fully immersed in another community: the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), where the concept of community serves as a foundation for all the work accomplished there. Because people live at PEC, community-building comes naturally. Guard explains that they are “very place-based as an organization. We learn from each other.” It is critical, Guard continues, for each person at PEC to “have a deep sense of respect for the people in the community.” Because of this respect, and sense of learning from each other, and perhaps even more so because approximately 30% of PEC’s current staff are former clients, there is not even a hint of a paternalistic, let-us-do-for-you attitude. Rather, there is a palpable feeling that everyone is in it together.
A large aspect of that community is listening. In her early days, when the organization was smaller and Guard got to know every client, she made a point to ask them, after they left, “What was the most important thing that PEC offered to you, to help you achieve success?”
Nearly all former clients would answer: “You listened to me.” Often someone at PEC was the first person in a woman’s life to have truly listened to her. Guard says, “When you listen to someone it means you value what they say, that you value them as a person. If we listen to them, then if they listen to their own kids…well, we are half way down the road to changing their family dynamic.”
PEC executive vice president Miles H. Wilson took the importance of listening as a basis for the sense of community at PEC one step further: “PEC is an organization that grew through listening.” When women arrive at the emergency shelter, they aren’t told what they need to do. Instead, the message is: “Let me hear what you feel you need to be more successful.” From there, the case managers can discuss the issues, apply resources, set personalized goals and allow the clients to “earn their way” through PEC’s continuum of care.
And that continuum of care is comprehensive, indeed. Clients first arrive at the emergency shelter, later move into transitional housing where they are given the responsibility to shop for groceries and cook their own meals. Finally, when they have earned it, they move into permanent housing. Through PEC’s community development corporation, for some families, this includes purchasing their first home.
As they move along this housing pathway, clients are given access to incredible resources, including parenting classes, excellent daycare and after-school programs, and summer camps for older kids. There are computer training classes and 24-hour computer kiosks with Internet access available throughout the buildings. Comprehensive health care is offered to the women and their children.
Most importantly, extensive employment training programs are offered. Not only does PEC train clients in areas such as workplace culture, conflict resolution, workplace literacy and GED preparation, but the staff at PEC formed community partnerships to help ensure that actual jobs are available to their clients. One such program is the Community Self Empowerment and Employment Program, a 12-week financial literacy program in partnership with Citizens Bank, Wachovia, TD Bank and Conestoga to prepare PEC clients for employment as bank tellers.
Guard is grateful for the community that she has found – or, more accurately, the community she has helped build – at PEC. “I believe that I’m where I’m supposed to be here at PEC. A lot of doors have opened to me in life that I think have been divine intervention. Now, I understand it’s my decision to walk through the door or not. Because, let’s be honest, sometimes there’s a little blood, sweat and tears involved in walking through a door. But, the doors have been there and I think that’s because I’m working with people that need help.”
As Guard addressed dozens of current Trinity students recently as the 2009 Sower’s Seed lecturer, she encouraged the young women in front of her to consider working for a nonprofit or in the field of social justice upon graduation. She joked, “In this economy, it is highly likely that many of you will not be making much money anyway, so you might as well enter the nonprofit world of feeling good, doing good, and earning peanuts!”
Everyone in the room understood, however, that her advice was heartfelt. As she explained, the nonprofit world offers incredible intangible benefits such as the opportunity to be creative and entrepreneurial, the opportunity to meet like-minded people and the opportunity to truly change the world. As an employer, she wants to let people know that, although organizations like hers are tightening their belts, there are jobs out there. A strong liberal arts educational background, the willingness to work hard and be part of a team, and an upbeat attitude are the key qualifications she looks for in potential employees.
Over the years at PEC, Guard has been honored with countless awards. She received the prestigious Philadelphia Award in 2004 and was named one of the 75 Greatest Living Philadelphians by the Philadelphia Eagles and Dunkin Donuts in 2007. And, Dan Geringer, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, once wrote that Guard is “a major artery in this town’s heart.” Guard has testified before Congress and has been invited to the White House.
And yet, beyond all those accolades and awards, the work Guard does each day is truly about the individual women – and families and future generations – whose lives are touched, healed, and forever changed by the People’s Emergency Shelter.
“When I was sitting where you are now, the concepts of opportunity and equality, of justice and fairness, of real equality without discrimination, took shape and form. The grassroots political leadership merged with the crucial ideals I had grown up with in my family, and had learned about at church and school. All of a sudden those hopes and dreams moved to action. I’m not sure if you realize this, but you are sitting in the exact same spot that I was sitting in – literally and figuratively – in the late 1960s.”
- Gloria Guard, Sower’s Seed Lecture, February 11, 2009
As Gloria walked me out on that dreary Philly afternoon, she introduced me to Grace, an employee at PEC. Grace came to PEC 15 years ago in a very different situation: as a homeless woman with a serious drug problem and three young sons. Grace took advantage of every opportunity she was given through PEC. And, through a great deal of hard work, she turned her life around. Today, she is employed in a professional position at PEC. Her two older sons are in college, the eldest about to graduate. Most importantly, Grace, who came to PEC homeless, now owns a home which she bought through PEC’s homeownership program.
This is the geometric power of healing. Guard says, “Grace’s boys are on a path to outdistance their mom, getting their BAs and maybe beyond that. I know them and they are all solid. They have sound social values and will pass them along to whoever they meet in their work lives and, of course, to their children. They are living proof that generational poverty and distress can be turned around.”
And Gloria Guard ’67 is living proof that a Trinity alumna can, in fact, help change the world.
To read the complete text of Gloria Guard’s Sower’s Seed Lecture, go to www.trinitydc.edu/guard.