Every community has them. Folks that radiate a particular kind of joy that only can come from a life imbued with meaning. They’re from different generations, races, economic levels. What they have in common is the belief that the lasting transformation begins with relationships, an inch wide, a mile deep.
We shined a light on 12 social fabric weavers from one community, our hometown of Phoenixville, PA: Meet Beth who began donating leftover food from her restaurant to a shelter and ended up being elected for city council. Meet Theresa who channeled the weight of caring for her sick mother into movement celebrating caregivers.
The weavers remind us that the world we’re waiting for can start right here. Right now. Stronger, more resilient neighborhoods depend on us getting engaged and caring for one another. May these stories inspire you to seek out, to celebrate, and to become the weavers we’ve been waiting for.
Day One: Richard “Gump” Delaney
When Richard “Gump” Devaney’s beloved wife Pat passed away, he lost more than just his partner. “I felt that I no longer had a purpose in life without her. So I was searching for something to get my mind off of the grieving process and to also find a meaningful purpose in life.” As a retired high school janitor, he was used to working behind the scenes, and had developed an eye to see beauty where others might miss it. He began taking pictures of his hometown and posting them on Facebook page called “You know You’re From Phoenixville When.” He soon became the page administrator and through his tender curation, breathed life into the site.
At the time when the community had lost its daily newspaper, Gump’s page filled a void. It quickly grew to over 15,000 active members—a significant percentage of their small town—and became a key source of community news.
Through the page, Gump met his best friend and unofficial side kick, Nancy McGuigan. Nancy joined Gump as a volunteer administrator.
The duo has become a fixature around town, serving as de facto beat reporters. From Blobfest to Dogwood Fest to Food Truck Fest, from vintage clothing markets to farmers markets, Phoenixville is as quirky as it is active. No matter the occasion, you’ll find Gump and Nancy with their cameras in the backgrounds, capturing the moments that make up our lives together.
As for Gump, he still misses his wife every day. But his efforts have given him renewed purpose. “Becoming more involved has given me a real purpose of making people happy, while also being a good source of information for Phoenixville,” he reflects on his decade leading the group. “It’s given me a real meaningful reason to live again. I believe that we all need to feel that we have a purpose in life. This work gives me hope from within.
Day Two: Emelie Collet
Stepping into Schuylkill Friends Meeting is like entering an episode of “Tiny Homes, Big Living: The Religious Edition.” Community meditation, held every Thursday at the Meeting house, is free and everyone is welcome.
Emelie Collet says it is “not a religious gathering, yet God’s leading created it.” It came out of the intense social and political unrest in the fallout of the 2016 presidential election.
After the election, Emelie was ready to spring into action. The deep roots of peace and justice of her Religious Society of Friends community was a natural starting place. “But every time I joined one of those [activist] meetings,” Emelie remembers, “I felt a clear strong message that my role was elsewhere.” Emelie knew she needed to create time and space to listen to the stirring she felt in her body.
As a Quaker, Emelie is well practiced in the art of discernment. Some call it deepest knowing, listening to inner wisdom, or determining the next right thing. For Emelie, it’s listening to the voice of God. “I took some time to listen, in prayer, and the idea for the meditation gathering came to me,” Emelie says. “For me, following God’s lead doesn’t always take me in the directions I expect.” Maybe it’s her infectious joy or dash of irreverence, but Emelie has a way to make meditation feel like play. Sometimes she’ll use music or poetry, even tarot cards. There’s conversation, warm blankets knitted by hand, and tons of laughter.
Each week, Emelie creates nourishing space for stillness and healing. But she gets as much as she gives. “Leading Peace Meditation has deepened my own exploration of meditation and has held me accountable for maintaining my practice. I have grown close and feel so much gratitude to these active community members that come together to meditate.”
Day Three: Miss Kitty
Arcola “Miss Kitty” Thornton stopped bullies in their tracks if she caught wind of them picking on a child in her neighborhood. Decades later, these neighborhood children, now grown, tell stories of needing new winter coats. Miss Kitty always had one to spare, even though she had a houseful of her own children. .
Miss Kitty’s youngest child, Theresa Thornton, watched her mother care for her disabled grandmother.
So when Miss Kitty began to suffer from diabetes and dementia, there was no question that Theresa would give her mom the loving care that she deserved. But it wasn’t easy.
Ms. Thornton made the difficult decision to leave her full-time job to become a caregiver. The burden on her family, and her own children, now third-generation caregivers, was crushing.
Now Thresa’s on a mission to make sure no other caregiver feels diminished or invisible. In 2015, she started Miss Kitty’s Care to celebrate caregivers and the vital role they play in the health of our society.
For Ms. Thornton, though, this is not just an awards ceremony.
It’s the beginning of a movement.
While the Thornton family’s selflessness is honorable, caregiving has taken an intergenerational toll. Lost wages, exorbitant medical expenses, and other systemic racial and economic forces have kept their family from reaching their potential. Often it’s women like Miss Kitty and Ms. Thornton who shoulder the burden of the unseen and unpaid physical and emotional labor of caregiving.
Miss Kitty passed away, in the comfort of her home, thanks to Theresa’s care, just before her 94th birthday. Knowing that her mother’s legacy will be carried on through Miss Kitty’s Care is deeply gratifying to Ms. Thornton.
Day Four: Jack Hall
No one represents the spirit of Phoenixville more than Jack Hall. If you spend any time on Bridge Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, you’re bound to run into Jack sweeping sidewalks or shoveling snow. When the Borough Manager in the early days of Phoenixville’s revitalization urged him to sweep around the local businesses to “keep the area looking clean and good,” as Jack recalls, he decided to take on this role. The town needed him. .
Bridge Street is lined with vibrant restaurants, sidewalk cafes, and small retail shops, and Jack takes pride in keeping the area in tip-top condition. The business owners, in return, take care of Jack. “I got all my teeth pulled in July, and the day I got out of the hospital, so many of my friends from sweeping check in on me. Gail from @bridgestreetchocolates , Kate from @divingcatstudio . People from @steelcitygalaxy . Good friends.”
While Jack’s brain works differently than most, his core needs are the same. “I like being busy and having a purpose. Sweeping and shoveling are good exercise. Keep me motivated. It’s a good contribution. People are always saying ‘thank you.’ I’ve found that if you’re nice to people good things will happen to you.”
Jack appears to have a photographic memory, and one of his favorite interests is the weather. “People around town call me the local weather forecaster and the mayor of Phoenixville.” His favorite joke to residents who pass by is “I’m going to do a snow job on you!”
Phoenixville loves Jack right back. He’s constantly being greeted and thanked by the community. Seeing Jack dutifully tend to his little pocket of the world reminds people that we’re all in this together. With a little encouragement, each one of us, like Jack, has the potential to contribute to the common good.
Day Five: Beth Burckley
Beth Burckley is a cautionary tale of just how much your life can change when you begin to get involved in your community. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Beth and her husband Brian opened Uncle B’s BBQ restaurant in Phoenixville to great acclaim. “When we started the business in 2014, the community was so supportive of us that I wanted to give back.” Beth began by getting involved with building an All Abilities Playground. Creating a safe space where children with disabilities could play alongside of their able-bodied friends tapped into a great passion for Beth, who has spent her career in special education. “I started going to Borough Council meetings to advocate for the playground, and eventually ran for council“ says Beth, who was elected to represent Phoenixville’s Middle Ward.
“My involvement has helped me to meet many people in our community, to get to know them and call them friends. These relationships definitely make me feel a deeper sense of connection,” Beth says.
“Though the Playground Project, I met the Bradley family,” shares Beth. “Their son Jack passed away due to complications from his disability and they raised money for the playground in his honor. They are such genuine people who took their tragedy and made something positive from it. It was an honor, and one of my favorite moments, to have Miranda, Joe, and Jack’s younger brother Gabe, help cut the ribbon on the playground.” There’s no telling what issue, cause, or person will capture Beth’s generous and expansive heart next. But you get the feeling when you’re with Beth that she could imagine no greater satisfaction than living for something, someone, some place greater than herself.
Day Six: Gary Russell
It all started with handing out bags of groceries.
Gary Russell’s church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Phoenixville, PA began its food ministry humbly enough by passing out bags of food. It didn’t come close to meeting the need. They had to figure out how to serve more people, more frequently.
That’s when Mr. Russell stepped in. He became the volunteer director of St. Peter’s Pantry in 2012. And he’s quietly spent the past decade building systems to feed his food insecure neighbors. This year, the pantry served over 4,500 people.
Mr. Russell’s influence, though, can’t be measured by meals served. The transformative power of his work are the pathways they’ve become for neighbors to touch each other’s lives.
Gary trusts that, given the opportunity, people will take care of each other. He gives them the tools and training to get the job done. Then he gets out of the way. Well, sort of.
There is ample opportunity to develop relationships between those who serve and those who come to eat. Board games and decks of cards are casually placed on tables. Crayons and coloring books are readily available for children.
Gary doesn’t offer volunteers any advice on how to behave or interact with guests. Unobtrusively working the room, he warmly pats men on the back and bends down to look children in the eye. Then he’ll pause to fit a couple of puzzle pieces into a guest’s project.
An understanding ripples through the room. We’re here connect with each other. Serving food is necessary, yes, but venerating our inextricable human connection is essential.
The force moving through Mr. Russell drives him not just to feed bellies, but to touch souls. “I find such satisfaction knowing what I do every day may possibly contribute someone’s sense of belonging and improve their life experience in some way,” he reflects. “This might be just listening to their everyday troubles. I consider it my privilege to serve the common good.
I love how these seemingly ordinary folk tapped into the inner brooding of the spirit to pursue extraordinary transformation around them. This is a well-curated ensemble of incredible human beings who are remarkably unselfish, who aspire to create a community that is premised on the simple notion of affirming the invisible. This line is so resonant: “ … but venerating our inextricable human connection is essential.”