On a hot and rainy Friday on Venango Street, about 15 people gathered for a food pickup as volunteers unloaded a U-Haul of groceries and other goods outside of Richard and Christine De Jesus's Harrowgate home.
Despite the rain, it was a typical day for the husband-and-wife team, plus the volunteers involved with their non-profit Richard and Friends United in the Community.
The family-run organization dedicates its efforts to helping people across Philly and parts of South Jersey by supplying food, clothing, furniture, and more. They also provide assistance navigating state systems like rent rebate processes.
Richard and Friends partners with local organizations such as Rock Ministries, Philabundance, and Relax the Back to receive donations. According to Richard and Christine's daughter, Jessica Castro, the group serves 350 to 500 people across Philadelphia and parts of South Jersey weekly.
In the community, Christine De Jesus said the services they provide are in high demand because there is a lot of need.
“Even me, as a homeowner, I've seen my property taxes double and triple since I've been here,” Christine said. “Rising rents, rising property taxes – everything is rising."
For Richard, who has lived in Harrowgate for 24 years and grew up in Kensington, his organization's services are familiar.
"I started early," said Richard, who is now 55. "Buying groceries for seniors [and] buying groceries for families who go through hard times."
According to Richard, as a kid, he served in youth leadership positions at his church before briefly working in the illicit drug market – a common risk for children in the neighborhood.
"God was with me watching because I'm learning, 'How can I preach to my young people? I don't know what the street is about,'" Richard said. "It was only for a year or two, then I went back home, and I went back to church."
Later, when Richard was a teenager, he began helping people out of his family's home. He eventually called the services he provided there the "Delhi Community Center on Butler Street," which provided the same community support that Richard and Friends offers today.
When he started a family and moved to Venango Street, the Delhi Community Center grew into Richard and Friends United in the Community.
Sue Markocki, a Harrowgate resident, met Richard many years ago while walking by when he was handing out food. Now, Markocki said that Richard calls her when the group is distributing food so she can pick some up for her neighbors, too.
"He called me over, told me to get some food," Markocki said. "It was all free, and for years, I have come to him. If somebody needed food, he was always there with it."
The organization also hosts holiday parties and gives out Christmas gifts for the community, Markocki said. For example, people in De Jesus's network will tell him about families struggling with addiction. And for the past 18 years, Richard has surprised the children in these families with a visit dressed as Santa Claus.
"Richard and Friends are really good people," Markocki said. "They're very kind, they're generous, and they do take care of everyone."
Tamika Stansbury, who lives near the De Jesus family, regularly picks up fresh fruit from the organization for her grandchildren.
"They give out things that I don't have a lot of money for, for my grandkids when they come," Stansbury said. "That's extra money and things I don't have to put money out for, and I love that."
According to Sebastian Trifiro, he picks up from Richard and Friends' food distributions twice a week and has been getting food from them for 10 years.
"When I came here, I had a very difficult time," said Trifiro of his Harrowgate neighborhood. "But in the last few years, I've really grown to like it because people that I didn't like moved out, and things are a lot better."
Although Richard and Friends has been operating for many years, running the organization can be challenging.
According to Christine, the organization is up against paying for increasing transportation costs and finding solutions to Philly's limitation of affordable housing and home repair resources for low-income families.
For example, the organization picks up donation items in trucks. Often, the small grants Richard and Friends United in Community receive are restrictive and do not cover transportation, Christine said.
"We have to find other ways, whether it's through fundraising or whether to get private donations to rent the trucks," said Christine. "Most of the time, sorry to say, it comes out of pocket."
Additionally, with rents increasing in Kensington, the organization's clients have needed help with the increasing housing and utilities costs.
According to Christine, while many clients apply for rental assistance, few get it. And for people living on a fixed income, such as those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the neighborhood's increasing cost of living doesn't show up on their checks. Then, since residents prioritize their rent payments, their utilities get shut off because they can't afford them, she said.
Meanwhile, a steady flow of donations has also been a problem due to lack of available grants and inflation, said Castro, the De Jesus's daughter.
"Over the years, grant monies and in-kind donations such as food donations have really dwindled," Castro said. "You can feel the effects of it."
In the future, Castro hopes to see more collaboration between neighborhood organizations to address these issues rather than each organization "hoarding" information and resources.
"If we all work together, we can service more people," Castro said. "We can get them more connected with some services that maybe others provide that we do not."
When and where to find Richard and Friends
Someone from Richard and Friends is available to help anyone in need, seven days a week, at their Venango Street home, located near Jasper Street. People should call 267-643-0415 before they arrive.
Sometimes, depending on availability, they will refer people to the Frankford Community Development Corporation, where Christine works.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, Richard and Friends delivers donations to the Greater Impact Worship Center at 2431 N. 6th St. between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. Then, at 2 p.m., they distribute what is left outside of their Venango Street home.
The donations they distribute always include food, but can also include toiletries, toys and other items depending on what people need and what the organization receives.
Then, whatever food donations are left over from Tuesday are distributed on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. at Philly Harvest Church located at 4011 G. St.
Richard and Friends does not require any identification for people receiving food and other donation. They also do not want anyone’s location – wherever they are in the city – to be a barrier, so they encourage people to call them at 267-643-0415 if they do not have access to these locations.
According to Richard, he is looking for a building that will house all of Richard and Friends’ services in Frankford, which would allow the organization to expand their offerings. For example, he hopes to eventually offer therapy and medical services to people experiencing addiction, plus a space for people to shower and change into clean clothes in the building.
“Make them feel special, try to change their life around,” De Jesus said.
Additionally, Christine said they are using some recent grant funds to pay people to clean up trash in the neighborhood. They decided to put some money toward community clean-ups based on community feedback they received through several surveys. Their respondents expressed concerns over drugs, litter, and violence.
“We would like to be able to clean up some of the blight in the area and actually pay people to do that because I know sometimes it’s hard to get volunteers,” said Christine. “Although sometimes people are willing to do that, we also know people have needs as well.”
How to help
Existing volunteers are actively recruiting others to join their efforts.
Kensington resident Lester Santana, who used to drive tractor trailers for a living, is one of those volunteers. The organization needs more trucks and people who can drive them, Santana said.
“I've been with him like 27 years already, helping him,” Santana said. “I used to use my truck to bring him stuff whenever I can or get beds 'cause the beds were pretty far and to get toys 'cause we gotta go sometimes to Bensalem, sometimes New Jersey.”
Finally, Richard and Friends United in the Community is searching for a web designer to offer pro-bono or sliding scale-priced services. The organization hopes to create a website with an event calendar and a donate button.
“Just come and get involved and see the different things that we do,” Richard said. “Every hand helps.”