Growing up in suburban Montgomery County, Kendra Van de Water was always one of those “good kids.” She came from a long line of public servants — nurses, teachers. Her beloved late grandfather was Henry Van de Water, the revered former principal of Wissahickon High School in whose name that school’s auditorium and a scholarship fund are now dedicated.
So it was particularly shocking when, while waiting for her mother to pick her up from a birthday party in Philly one night when she was 16, police approached Van de Water and her friends — with no mercy.
“‘You’re coming with us,’ they said, ‘It’s two minutes past curfew!’” she recalls. Van de Water explained that she was waiting for her mother. The police didn’t care. “They started grabbing us, and the next thing I know, I’m on the ground, getting kicked and punched by Philadelphia police.”
“I’m a fierce advocate, and I don’t play about people’s lives,” says Van de Water.
Black youth being mistreated by police is an all too common tale — always has been — but the experience was completely alien to Van de Water and her family. “Looking back, we probably should’ve sued, but none of the adults in my life knew what to do. No one had ever been in trouble like that,” she says. They believed the best course of action was to just get through the punishment: four days in what was then called the Youth Studies Center, the City’s residential detention center.
Those four harrowing days completely changed the trajectory of Van de Water’s life.
“I just couldn’t believe the things kids my age were telling me. They were like, ‘Oh, I can’t read.’ ‘I’ve been in here for four years.’ ‘My mom is gone.’ ‘My dad’s in jail.’ I was like What the fuck? How can someone my age be experiencing all these things — and then say they’re on their own, on top of that?”
The biggest thing Van de Water took away from the experience: There are countless young people being treated as if nobody cares about them.
Van de Water decided then to commit her life to doing something for those kids — the ones others write off as scary or crazy, hopeless or bad. It’s what ultimately led her to co-found, with James Aye, YEAH Philly, a Black-led nonprofit that works with teens and young adults in West and Southwest Philadelphia who have been impacted by violence.
Putting the youth in the room
After pursuing a master’s in social work, Van de Water got experience across the gamut of social service settings: She worked on State Road and in the White House, where she did her graduate internship. She worked for governments and schools, prisons and policy centers. Through it all, she was continually horrified by how young Black people were treated.
It was at a meeting for the Police Advisory Commission in 2018 that she met James Aye, who was then working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Violence Prevention. “I was so pissed in the meeting, because we were talking about youth violence — and there were no youth in the room!” Van de Water says.
Aye felt similarly, so the duo took matters into their own hands. They created a Survey Monkey, then hit the streets of West and Southwest Philly, getting 300 teens and young adults to answer questions about what they really want and need.
Young people feel like adults don’t care about them. That their support system is limited. That they’re not safe in this city. That there aren’t appealing or convenient activities to keep them busy.
Their findings: Young people feel like adults don’t care about them. That their support system is limited. That they’re not safe in this city. That there aren’t appealing or convenient activities to keep them busy.
In February 2019, Van de Water and Aye got to work volunteering to run groups at neighborhood rec centers — they held workshops focused on stress management, conflict resolution, managing mental health symptoms, art therapy, sexual health, healthy relationships, understanding the legislative process and elected officials in our own neighborhoods, employment — general life skills that were relevant to all the young people and what they asked for. The hangouts grew by word of mouth so quickly, that the rec centers were overwhelmed.
But the young people didn’t want to disband. “Can we create our own thing, and get our own space?” they asked.
Once again, Aye and Van de Water got busy. They began fundraising, ultimately raising enough to buy and renovate what is now a beautiful West Philadelphia row home almost on the border of Cedar Park, Cobbs Creek, Angora and Garden Court, where young people can come every weekday from 2 until 10pm to be together; to eat meals prepared by a young chef; to play games or do laundry or shower or nap; to meet with tutors or therapists; to get legal advice and find employment. To feel loved.
Along the way, the group came up with a name: YEAH Philly.
Technically, it stands for Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout (YEAH). But, really, it’s a feeling, a non judgemental embrace and a much-needed hug.
Dismantling racist systems
Van de Water sees YEAH Philly as both a direct service provider, and a vehicle for policy change; she is particularly committed to dismantling the juvenile justice system.
“The juvenile legal system is like an abyss of shit. If anything is going to be my legacy, it is going to be taking down juvenile court and probation and dismantling all of these things,” she says. “The biggest thing I realized from all of my jobs and studies is the importance of putting together work on the ground and making sure it connects to the policy work.”
So, yes, YEAH Philly consistently serves meals and gives out groceries — but they also worked with legislators in Harrisburg to change the rules so it is easier for young people to get access to their birth certificates and other legal documents, which had previously presented roadblocks to employment and other opportunities.
They help young people get phones and jobs and learner’s permits and driver’s licenses, but they also empower them to do community service, like giving out pet food to folks in the neighborhood, a regular event the young people run completely on their own.
YEAH Philly hooks young people on advocating for themselves by bringing them to Harrisburg, letting them record TikToks at the State Capitol, yes, but also encouraging them to speak with officials.
“We’re elevating their experiences so they get a chance to tell it like it is from their perspective, to very powerful people. They get to say things like ‘Why am I 17 and unable to get my birth certificate just because my mom doesn’t have her proper documents?’ They feel empowered by these things,” Van de Water says.
They help young people’s mothers and grandmothers pay their bills, and they help young people stay in school. They make sure everyone gets home safely at night via Uber or Lyft, or with a ride from a staffer. If someone is unhoused, they can stay — temporarily, only — at HQ, until a longer-term solution is found.
“When we show up and have youth speakers, we show up with people who have been to jail, who are 19, have been shot before, have committed all of these things. We may be controversial because of the population we serve, but people see how many kids we work with. So you may not like the way we do things, but you respect it, because nobody else has been able to work with this big of a group of young people who may have been in the system or have been forgotten about,” Van de Water says.
And where so many youth programs in the city continue to fail or waste money, YEAH Philly is growing: They have an annual operating budget of $2 million, and serve at least 400 young people each year through one service or another. They spent more than $700,000 in mutual aid, transportation, stipends, wages and meals in 2021 and 2022. Their staff has grown to 11 people.
YEAH Philly’s secret? “It’s been our consistency, showing up for them,” Van de Water says. “That’s why they bring their friends, their cousins, whoever.”
Their Violent Crime Initiative (VCI) has expanded to support 125 young people per year who are facing violent legal charges, with the goal of keeping young people in the community and ultimately getting them out of the legal system. Their WSW Employment Tour has 42 young people placed in paid internships, trade schools, or employment opportunities. They provide paid, two-day training in conflict resolution and peer mediation. And they’re about to open the YEAH Community Market in May, to provide consistent access to free groceries and pet food; the market will be entirely run by YEAH’s young people.
Their secret? “It’s been our consistency, showing up for them,” Van de Water says. “That’s why they bring their friends, their cousins, whoever. People will come to us and say I heard about you in jail and I really want to join this program because you really helped my friend.”
Her biggest frustration: those who cling to the status quo. “All the research shows that violence is connected to poverty, but this city does nothing to lift people out of poverty. We’re small, but we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mutual aid for our communities. So for me, that’s the biggest frustration with this government — with people who can do things and have the resources, but choose not to because of the racism.” She’s grateful to funders who have seen the value in the work YEAH Philly does: The Neubauer Family Foundation and Spring Point Partners, Philadelphia Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and the City’s Department of Public Health, to name a few. (Full disclosure: Spring Point and Philadelphia Foundation are also supporters of The Citizen.)
One big family
YEAH Philly sticks together — and that has made the difference to hundreds of young people.
Take Kassidy. In 2020, she had been arrested for charges related to drugs. Her lawyer suggested she check out YEAH Philly, which at the time didn’t have its own space and just met around the city doing various activities. “I thought I’d go once and quit — but James and Kendra weren’t like anyone else I met before,” she says. She describes a mix of unconditional love and compassion unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Says YEAH Philly student Kassidy, “If there were more people like Kendra and James who were willing to listen and speak up for us, things would be cool right now.”
When Kassidy gave birth to twin girls who subsequently passed away, she fell into a deep depression; Van de Water showed up at her house, took her downtown to see the Christmas trees at LOVE Park and have ice cream. When Kassidy’s uncle died, YEAH Philly helped pay the funeral bill. When Kassidy wanted to drop out of school to get a job, YEAH Philly started paying her a stipend every two weeks.
“I’ve been through a lot. And when I come here, it’s just a whole different vibe. It’s like one big family,” she says. “I honestly feel as if it wasn’t for James and Kendra, I wouldn’t be as far as I am now. I wouldn’t be in school. They helped me get out of all of my bad habits and doing dumb stuff, hanging with the wrong crowd and partying every day, just wasting my life.”
Now, Kassidy’s on track to graduate in June. “YEAH Philly definitely helped me realize my worth and what I’m capable of.” She believes the key to YEAH Philly’s success isn’t about metrics, but about love.
“We need more people like Kendra and James in this city. If there were more people like them, I honestly believe gun violence would be reduced by so much. If there were more people like Kendra and James who were willing to listen and speak up for us, things would be cool right now. Most of the stuff that’s going on, it’s because people got neglected. They didn’t have that security that they wanted or needed. I don’t think any of us ask for much, but we all want that safe haven.”
A grandfather’s legacy
Van de Water knows she is a chameleon of sorts, just as comfortable hanging in the White House as she is in West Philly. And she relishes using her adaptability to advocate for others. It is, after all, a value her grandfather instilled in her from the time she was a little girl.
“People always ask me how I became so pro-Black, and they’re surprised to learn that I got it from my White grandfather. He is the one who taught me that if you are watching someone do something wrong to someone else, you have to stand up and speak out and do something,” she says.
“Now, I work with young people who’ve been in the system since they were 10, on house arrest, all of these things, and they have some fucked-up lives that are really hard and that they should not have had to go through — but they come to us, and they tell us we changed their lives. Those are the reasons I keep doing this. I’m a fierce advocate, and I don’t play about people’s lives.”
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