Photos by Tessa Marie Images
These Main Line area difference-makers are leaving a lasting mark on the region—each in their own way.
| Rev. Carolyn C Cavaness | Lisie Abrams | Shea Rhodes | Greg Seltzer | David Bradley
| Muneera Walker | Derek Fiorenza | Kenny Covert | Jayne Alavi | Alexander Jensen
Rev. Carolyn C Cavaness
The first female pastor in Bethel AME Church’s 125-year history, Rev. Carolyn C. Cavaness may serve 135 congregants in Ardmore. But her outreach has impacted as many as 3,000—a lot of them through the church’s community garden and the over 30 at-home versions she helped sprout during COVID-19’s first 50 days. “That’s my heart,” says Cavaness. “You walk by our garden at the church, and in the midst of death and destruction, we see life happening.”
The fourth-generation pastor continues to provide Bethel Academy’s much-needed free after-school programming. And alongside interfaith colleagues, she’s combatting summer food-security issues in the suburbs. “Philabundance is great, but there are other pockets that need services, as well—even on Main Line,” she says.
Cavaness uses her working knowledge of Spanish to reach out to a local Latino community that has struggled mightily with the onset of online learning. “In one of the best school districts in the state, you still have those who are not serviced,” she says. “I have to be in the moment of the pivot. The only way we can survive is to be interdisciplinary and interconnected.”
It’s how churches and the communities they serve help each other shatter barriers. “South Ardmore is a historic area,” says Cavaness. “How do we preserve that with the level of gentrification going on, while meeting needs and not leaving people behind? People of color are spread out like never before. How do you get to these families? As Main Liners, we need to extend ourselves to the needs in Norristown, Pottstown and Philadelphia.”
With the housing market soaring, property in South Ardmore is at a premium. Lisie Abrams should know—she’s an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. Community is important to Abrams, and so is fresh, healthy food. In 2018, she transformed a portion of her land into a garden, planting tomatoes donated to her older Italian-American neighbors. “At that point, we were just going to give them tomatoes to make their homemade sauce,” Abrams says.
Soon after, Abrams partnered with Rev. Carolyn Cavaness to create a sister garden at Bethel AME Church of Ardmore. “The idea was to alleviate food insecurity by having the church distribute food to parishioners,” says Abrams.
During the pandemic, Abrams and Cavaness ramped up produce production and donations. Between March and November 2020, they distributed more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Ardmore Food Pantry and Philabundance. Tomatoes, peas, lettuce, kale, peppers, onions, radishes and eggplant were sorted into biodegradable bags, then donated. “The need is tremendous,” Abrams says. “If we can go bigger, we’ll go bigger.”
At a recent Ted Talk in West Chester, Shea Rhodes opened the discussion with this telling scenario: In a police raid of a Mummers party, 10 female prostitutes were arrested and all 50 men on hand walked free. It’s just the sort of skewed reality Rhodes is working to dismantle as the director and co-founder of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law.
A former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, Rhodes has dedicated her career to combating violence against women, protecting the rights of the oppressed and exploited, and championing human rights. She’s an expert on Pennsylvania laws related to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and she battles on behalf of victims and survivors of the sex trade. A Villanova law school alum, she left the DA’s office eight years ago to cofound the CSE Institute with law professor Michelle Madden Dempsey.
Among other things, CSE advocates for policy, trains law enforcement and offers representation for victims. It also serves as an information clearinghouse for the Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans, a collective working to implement Pennsylvania’s comprehensive human trafficking statute. Its work has already resulted in three state laws.
The sex trade hit close to home last summer with the crackdown on a Malvern trafficking ring that involved undocumented teenage girls recruited through social media. “The common denominator is the demand for commercial sex at the expense of human beings,” says Rhodes.
At the federal level, Rhodes works behind the scenes to formulate policy in all states. “We’re changing the conversation around prostitution, normalizing what it really is from the perspective of those who are entered into it,” she says. “We listen to survivors.”
Narberth’s Greg Seltzer is a high-powered mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer at Ballard Spahr. His side passion is the annual Philly Music Fest, four nights of rock and blues shows at three venues in Center City. The festival has been a serious fundraiser, generating $40,000 for music education programs.
Then came COVID-19. With music venues shuttered, Seltzer first considered scrapping the 2020 festival. Instead, he partnered with Ardmore Music Hall owner Chris Perella to create a virtual event. Livestreamed over two days in September, it featured Langhorne Slim, Japanese Breakfast and other indie music favorites. In lieu of the 3,500 fans who typically attend the festival, more than 5,000 livestreamed the shows. “Creativity and entrepreneurship can translate to music and the arts,” says Seltzer. “We’re all learning this macro point—one that relates to people in education, restaurants and the arts.”
Fans watched—and gave more than $50,000. “Not through ticket sales, because we didn’t sell tickets,” Seltzer says. “The money was donated by corporations and individual fans from across the country.”
Eight local music programs received $5,000 each. The remaining $10,000 reseeded Seltzer’s own campaign, which offers $250 grants to struggling musicians and venue staff. Look for a 2021 festival in October.
Back in the ’80s, when David Bradley was attending Episcopal Academy, he would’ve dismissed any notion that he’d end up working at one of the coolest live music venues in the region. Decades later, in 2008, he landed at World Cafe Live as co-founder of LiveConnections. Bradley now helps run the nonprofit as a branch of World Cafe Live. The organization promotes music education, collaboration and performances throughout Philadelphia, especially in its underserved public schools.
When its performance space closed for COVID-19 mitigation, World Cafe Live transitioned to virtual programming. Bradley and his staff livestreamed concerts, conducting online jam sessions and spearheading other efforts. “We’ve worked to make connections virtually,” says Bradley. “We prioritized relationships with artists and community partners and found ways to bring music to people.”
One of them is the Philadelphia Lullaby Project, which teaches new parents and caregivers to write original songs for their kids. In partnership with Philadelphia-based nonprofit Mighty Writers, Bradley created “Mighty Songs for the Moment,” transforming student poetry into music. He also worked with kids at Hill-Freedman World Academy to produce an album of original music.
Theater is another of Bradley’s loves. A longtime company member at People’s Light in Malvern, he recently spearheaded a virtual acting and singing mashup of A Christmas Carol, along with a reading and discussion of an upcoming play. “It’s online, which changes the dynamic, but it makes us get creative in new ways,” he says.
Kenny Covert’s phone never stops ringing—and he keeps answering. He knows every endemic ill in Chester, and he’s doing what he can to help. “I’m involved in a lot of stuff,” he says. “My hands are stretched out.”
An unofficial peacekeeper, Covert was once a member of what he and six others dubbed the Brothers of Concern. Now he’s more of a lone ranger on the fringes, aiming for accountability and transparency in the school district, in the local government and on the streets.
At Keystone First, the largest healthcare company on the East Coast, Covert works as a care connector responsible for helping people better their health. “We have to do self-assessments for my job, and I hate it,” he says. “I just feel like what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Among Covert’s extracurricular priorities is stability in the school district. He wants to unite Chester Upland officials and the Chester County Intermediate Unit (which currently runs the schools) and expose the emptiness of the upstart Chester Charter School run by CEO Vahan Gureghlan. “He’s turned education into a hustle,” Covert says. “He’s come in with a white cap, given out free turkeys, thrown around a few dollars and offered something shiny and new. But our scores are exactly the same, and the education is no better.”
Covert has also made the most of a constructive relationship with the Delaware County District Attorney’s office, recommending street-smart insider Jean-Pierre Brice to lead the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods in an effort to curb gun violence and repeat trips to jail for Chester offenders. When it comes to politics, he’d like to get community activist and blogger Stefan Roots elected to one of four council seats. “Stefan asked me to run with him, but I’m not a politician,” says Covert. “I’m a person who puts pressure on politicians—I‘m not the kind to sit in box. Others do that to neutralize you.”
Growing up without a father wasn’t easy for Covert, but he was lucky to have a quality support system of family and friends. “Now, I see these kids have no support systems,” he says. “As a man, it’s my job to make my community better for its women and children.”
Muneera Walker has always thought outside the box— even boxes she builds herself. The first female to win an industrial arts award at Harriton High School, Walker went on to a career in general contracting, renovating kitchens and other homes in the Main Line area. She operated out of her longtime home in South Ardmore, where she got a first-hand view of food insecurity and educational disparities among Black residents in Lower Merion Township. “People think of the Main Line and affluence, but there are families in Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Gladwyne and Penn Wynne where people are in great need and they’ve been overlooked generationally,” says Walker.
And the pandemic has only exacerbated those needs. Virtual learning isn’t feasible for all students, and many depend on school breakfast and lunch programs. When Lower Merion School District needed help distributing boxed meals to its students, Walker jumped into action. Tapping her network and using resources at Bethel AME Church of Ardmore, Ardmore Avenue Community Center and other neighborhood organizations, she formed Neighbors Helping Neighbors on the Main Line. She created a system to pick up food in bulk, organize it into packages and deliver it to families in need. “It started with breakfast and lunch, but then we realized children needed dinner, too,” she says. “The need grew from Lower Merion to Haverford Township and Radnor.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors also offers free virtual tutoring for children in grades pre-K through 12. Tutoring is available to all students, but most participants are Black and Latino. “It’s my way of correcting some of the missteps with educating Black and minority students on the Main Line,” Walker says. “The pandemic didn’t create these situations, but we can take measures to resolve them.”
When facing the daunting issue of worldwide hunger, Derek Fiorenza knows his limitations. “Can I end hunger globally? Probably not,” he says. “Can I make some lives better? Definitely.”
Fiorenza’s passion for helping end food insecurity began when he was just 5 years old, helping his parents and sister serve meals at a shelter in Coatesville. Now, Fiorenza’s Food for Friends provides up to a million pounds of edible inventory to food banks in Pennsylvania and parts of New York annually. Founding F4 in 2011, he works with caterers, restaurants and other businesses to collect excess food for distribution to those struggling. “We connect providers to food banks and coordinate distribution,” he says.
Graduating from Bishop Shanahan High School in 2005, Fiorenza dreamed of going to Villanova University, the alma mater of his father, grandfather and uncle. The school wouldn’t admit him at first, but Fiorenza was persistent, gaining entry as a commuter student. He walked onto the football team as a kicker and graduated in 2008 with a communications degree. Two years later, he earned an MBA from California University of Pennsylvania, where he was an all-league punter.
In December 2007, Fiorenza was volunteering at a “breakfast with Santa” event at the Chester County Historical Society when he asked the caterer if he could spare 25 meals for a local shelter. The answer was yes. Fiorenza handled the distribution. The next year, he landed commitments for 50 meals. By 2010, he’d convinced a variety of businesses— including Villanova—to donate almost 1,500 meals. The following May, he created F4. “I’m blessed,” Fiorenza says. “I want to make a difference.”
F4 has one full-time employee, CEO Brenda Russell, and two part-timers who handle operations and social media. Fiorenza is the president and chairman of a board that has 20–30 members at any given time. F4 is privately funded by businesses and individuals, while also raising money with a gala and 5K run. “We don’t charge a fee or commission for anything we distribute,” Fiorenza says. “I have a lot, and I want to give back.”
“We’re successful at what we do,” says Jayne Alavi.
A retired physician, faculty member and clinical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Alavi has seen her own share of successes in life. Now, she’s fostering success in others who don’t have the advantages many of us do. “Education is the only way to help people make better lives for themselves,” she says. “You need to be in charge, and you can’t be without education.”
Alavi is a longtime board member and driving force behind A Better Chance Lower Merion, which strives to alter the life trajectory of academically talented youth of color. Eight male scholars (ABC sponsors girls nationally) cohabitate on Ardmore Avenue while attending Lower Merion High School. Home is typically New York, New Jersey, Delaware or Washington, D.C., where previous teachers have vouched for their college potential.
The ABC house is entirely financed by the community through bake sales, a 5K run and donations, which meet the needs of an annual $150,000 budget. The school district offers laptops and full immersion in school activities and sports. The home environment provides built-in friends and a boarding school experience, with a residential director living in an adjoining apartment. Recent college grads serve as resident tutors, after-school study hall monitors and weekend role models.
An older community adviser remains with each boy all four years as a parental surrogate, and each student is also assigned a host family. “Some become very close,” says Alavi, who sits on the committee that selects incoming applicants, usually two freshmen per year from a pool of about 30. “Those families almost always go to graduation and keep up with the child. They become friends for life, attend their weddings and even get to know their children.”
When is a utility box not a utility box? When it’s a canvas for fine art. Such is the case at the corner of Jackson and Hall streets in Phoenixville, where a graffiti-scarred eyesore has been replaced with a sunlit sky, rolling fields and a twisting river. The landscape is the work of Alexander Jensen, the painter chosen by the Beautification Advisory Commission of Phoenixville. It’s the 14th utility box in the borough to get a makeover. “Most of my work is 16 by 20 inches,” he says. “This was 5 by 6 feet and double sided. I didn’t think about it ahead of time, which is a good thing because I would’ve been intimidated.”
An aspiring artist who works in the insurance industry, Jensen lives in Phoenixville and uses the surrounding countryside as inspiration. Fittingly, “The Answers Are in Nature” is painted into the mural, a volunteer project that took weeks. Jensen spent afternoons and weekends at the corner of Jackson and Hall streets getting to know its residents and business owners, completing the work this past fall. “It’s a conversation piece but also an investment in time and effort to make this street look nicer,” says Jensen. “It’s art that brings the community together.”