Kevin Upshur has called the Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion home for his entire life — so it was painful for him to watch as the area became consumed by drugs and violence over the years. When his family decided to close their neighborhood bar amid the violence, Kevin was determined to use the space for good. He transformed the former watering hole into a learning and education center, and nearly thirteen years later, he’s still bringing hope and education to children and teens.
Over the decades, Kevin watched as drugs and violence crept into Strawberry Mansion.
“That meant the business changed too,” says Kevin. “The people who were coming into our bar were involved in a lot of drug activity and crime.”
As the community changed, Kevin’s mom Shirley decided to shutter the family-owned bar that had existed in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years. Before she passed away in 2006, Kevin’s mom asked him to make a difference in the neighborhood. When she left the bar to him, Kevin began brainstorming ways he could create positive change.
“I had always wanted to own a bookstore in the community,” says Kevin. “People thought the idea was crazy and that nobody would buy any books, but I started to do it anyway.”
Kevin began collecting books and spending time with young people in the neighborhood to foster a sense of community. He wanted to create more than a simple bookstore — he envisioned a place where young people could find safety, friends, and tools for learning.
Soon after Kevin began collecting and sharing books, a friend donated computers for kids to use in the space. Then the city began donating food. Kevin’s dream of fostering a healthy community was beginning to unfold.
In 2008, friends encouraged Kevin to create an official after school program where kids and teens could get help with their homework from tutors. Inspired by community interest, Kevin officially opened the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center (SMLC). In 2010, the learning and resource center received its nonprofit status.
The former bar quickly became much more than a place for kids to find help with their homework — Kevin had helped transform it into a space where kids could find safety, friendship, and education.
“Our mission is to help young people learn and grow,” says Kevin. “We want to accept them and do whatever we can do to make them better people.”
To work toward that mission, the SMLC began finding new ways to engage with the youth in the neighborhood. Today, the learning center offers field trips, motivational speaking events, mentoring opportunities, and healthy meal services. Some volunteer teachers even come in to teach public speaking courses.
In between raising a family and working as a full-time youth detention counselor for the city, Kevin focused on securing funding for the learning center. He received material donations from the community and small foundation grants, but decided to launch a GoFundMe to cover the extra expenses and fund new projects.
The average day brings in about 15 kids, says Kevin, but that number can easily double in the summer months. He realized that in order to continue growing, they simply needed more space.
“I’m always thinking about how to make the learning center better,” he says. “The responsibility that we have to these kids is big. I hate telling somebody that their kid can’t come and learn something because there’s no room.”
To solve that problem, Kevin is working on an expansion of the SMLC. With the help of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, he was able to secure the lot next door to the learning center so they can help more kids every single day. Kevin has big plans for the new building, which include enlarging the bathroom, creating a new kitchen area for cooking lessons, and adding a functional office space for the administration.
While the new building needs plenty of renovations, Kevin is definitely up for the challenge. Through literacy and learning at the center, Kevin hopes he can steer kids away from crime and toward a bright future instead.
“To actually change something, you have to talk about it and understand what’s going on in your community and what’s going on in the world,” he says. “Every day, I strive to do this. You can’t give up—you have to keep leading by example.”