by Louise E. Wright
“It is never too late to be what you might have been,” wrote English novelist George Eliot. One need look no further than Mary Ellen Graham for the embodiment of this idea.
At 62, Graham gave up a full-time position in education to take up social work, a field in which she had no previous formal training. Now, about to celebrate her 75th birthday (on June 19), she serves as president and executive director of My Place Germantown, Inc., 209 E. Price St., which provides permanent supportive housing for a dozen disabled and formerly homeless men. Last year, the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities of the City of Philadelphia presented Graham with an Access Achievement Award.
A resident of Fairmount, Graham earned a Master’s degree in English from what is now Arcadia University and has taught at all levels from 7th grade through graduate school. In fact, she still keeps a foot in the academic door, working as an adjunct professor at both the University of the Sciences and Community College of Philadelphia.
While full-time coordinator of the writing center and tutorial services at Chestnut Hill College, Graham had what she refers to as “a conversion kind of experience.” Poet and social advocate Edwina Gateley, a speaker at the college’s International Women’s Day event, so inspired Graham that she volunteered at Philadelphia’s Women of Change, a shelter for the homeless. “It sounds hokey,” she admits, “but then I wanted to leave academia in order to serve the poor full-time.”
Graham’s background in education worked to her advantage. Intent on hiring someone with a fresh perspective, Mercy Hospice offered her a position in case management. So it was that, at an age when many folks contemplate retirement, Graham embarked on a new career.
Graham refers to her time at Mercy as “my internship. The hospice sent me to every conceivable training available in the city.” Of her work there, she declares: “I took to it immediately. It was just a natural fit!” Those who sought refuge at the hospice benefitted from Graham’s fresh perspective for, in addition to her case management duties, she offered group activities in writing and literature. “The women loved it!” she beams.
After a stint at Bethesda Project, Graham retired. A year or so later, however, she “got itchy,” as she puts it, and began working at a health center, an outreach of her parish, Germantown’s St. Vincent De Paul. Her experiences there gave birth to the idea of My Place Germantown.
The middle-aged men who comprised Graham’s clients lived in what she describes as “deplorable conditions.” As a result, she believed the health center’s work “was undermined the minute they walked out the door. When the housing isn’t stable, medical routines aren’t consistent. My response was to try to create housing that would be an appropriate option for these folks.”
Graham focused exclusively on homeless men because, as she points out, they “are the hardest-to-place population. There’s a huge stigma attached to men who are homeless. Men are supposed to pull themselves up by their boot straps.”
Sharing her dream with fellow parishioners, Graham met with an enthusiastic response. Following the advice of Gloria Guard, then-president of PEC (People’s Emergency Center), Graham volunteered at countless organizations that served Philadelphia’s homeless. A real breakthrough occurred when Community Ventures, a non-profit developer of low and moderate income housing, teamed up with My Place Germantown.
Graham never thought of locating the residence anywhere but in Germantown. Her clients at the health center had strong ties to the neighborhood and considered it their home. As luck would have it, St. Vincent’s convent, dating from the 1860s and costly to maintain, came on the market about that time. Graham considered the East Price Street building ideal. “It’s not at all institutional,” she explains, “having originally been the home of a doctor.”
Yet before work could begin on renovating the convent, My Place Germantown had to fight a 16-month legal battle. Germantown residents protested the facility, resulting in the denial of the necessary zoning permit. When the board gave its approval at a second hearing, the opponents appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, alleging that the zoning board had erred. The court, however, upheld the board’s decision, and in March, 2009, construction began.
Nearly two years later, the first tenant moved in — and the men at My Place Germantown are, quite literally, tenants. Each signs a lease and pays rent; some work to meet their financial obligations while others rely on supplemental Social Security. Each must meet two requirements: he must have a certifiable disability and have experienced a recent bout of homelessness. Two of the apartments are wheelchair-accessible while one has been made suitable for the visually or hearing impaired. Although the men live independently, they benefit from the presence of a round-the-clock staff.
Occasionally a resident thinks of moving out; doing so is entirely his decision. Yet after looking at other apartments and the rent they command, he almost always realizes he can’t do any better. In fact, the apartments are so attractive that Graham herself lusts after the third-floor front.
More important than great housing at affordable prices, however, is the sense of community the residents have created. Graham observes, “Even though we’ve had some dust-ups, the men care about each other.”
Resident Zachary Stokes, one of the organizers of a Memorial Day open house, echoes the sentiment: “We’re trying to make it a community thing. Everybody makes something. Each tenant contributes something as does the staff.”
This sense of community embraces the neighbors as well. Once hostile, most now support My Place Germantown. They attend events like the open house, and one neighbor even threw a surprise birthday party for the men whose birthdays were in September.
This month, the community extends its boundaries even further. A team of youthful volunteers from Germany and the U.S. will descend upon My Place Germantown in order to transform the acre on which the residence sits into useable outdoor space.
While Graham longs for a flower garden, some of the men lobby for a horseshoe pit. Resident gardener Amos Shattuck wants a larger plot for his vegetables. At present, Shattuck grows veggies like cabbage and broccoli in raised beds but dreams of producing enough crops to open a farm stand. The proceeds, he explains, would finance special events for the residents like trips to a concert or play.
Clearly, Eliot’s belief that “it’s never too late” applies just as much to the men who have benefitted from Graham’s vision as to Graham herself. For more information, call 215-848-2892 or visit www.myplacegermantown.org