Liberian immigrant Jackie Wleh knows what he will be doing the Saturday before Christmas. Instead of shopping for last-minute gifts, he’ll be waking up at 6 a.m. to pick up free food at Shop-rite before heading to Blue Bell to get donated bread and bring it back to Philly, where he’ll operate his monthly food pantry until around 6 p.m. that night.
“Helping people is just in my genes, I just love it,” Wleh, 39, said while driving back from visiting a Kensington mother who applied to his holiday charitable program.
Wleh founded ABC Men Inc., an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit, five years ago. Best known for their volunteer snow removal service for the elderly and disabled, ABC Men has since expanded to programs like mentoring for teens, a food pantry, and Adopt-A-Family, which links families up with charitable donations around the holidays.
“For the first two-and-a-half years, we funded it,” Wleh said — meaning himself and his wife, who now live in Drexel Hill, Pa., and have three children. Since then they have found grants and other sources of charitable funding to create their slim budget.
Wleh, who works in hospitality management at a Philly hotel, has managed to get together a few thousand dollars in charitable donations over the past few years to distribute funds to families so they can get gifts.
At present, he has only managed to fundraise the first few hundred dollars for the 2015 program.
One of the families signing up this year is that of Genene Grimes, 29, who recently moved to Kensington with her six kids. She was only able to afford the home after qualifying for Section 8 housing.
“It’s been much better since we got the funding and we could move into a bigger home space,” Grimes said. “But now we just have to pull everything together.”
She wants to get back to work, but can’t manage daycare — her mother is elderly and not always able to help, and her sister is usually at work, Grimes said.
“My number one issue is child care,” Grimes said. “When stuff needs to be done, it’s just me.”
In the meantime, her older kids are starting to lead their own lives. Her daughter, Zymera, 12, is in seventh grade at the nearby John Stetson charter school, and her son, Daemeir, 10, is in training as a boxer at the rec center.
But with four other kids, ranging in age from 6 to 4 months, and an income of $700 a month in benefits and food stamps, Grimes doesn’t have much of a hope for a nice Christmas.
And she is the victim of a recent crime. After moving and leaving a job to have a baby, someone broke into her house on Thanksgiving, stealing numerous possessions — even her daughter’s boots — and some money Grimes had saved up.
“Everything was back to back to back,” she described of the series of events.
Grimes’ family is just one of more than 104 families who have applied to be part of Adopt-A-Family, an endorsement which guarantees about $50 per family member, and which can possibly bring more if the charity gets enough donations.
Wleh is still surprised when he gets families referred to his small organization by City Councilmen and even U.S. senators.
“It’s amazing. It’s like, ‘You guys need to be helping us help them,'” Wleh said. “But the need is the need.”