For the kids’ sake

When Tonya Rose opened a daycare center in South Philly this summer, it was just another step in a career that has been dedicated to helping children.

Rose is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Youth Enrichment Program, which she created in 1993 to sponsor her drill team, the Eastwick Commandoes. She lives in the Eastwick section of Southwest Philadelphia, but grew up in South Philly.

"I wanted to start the drill team because the neighbors in the area were complaining about the children loitering on the corners and stealing and getting into disruptive behavior," Rose said.

Some of the drill team’s alumni have gone on to become lawyers and teachers, and others have graduated from West Point Military Academy and Virginia Military School, she said.

Despite these successes, Rose consistently struggled to raise money for the group. Uniforms, musical instruments and trips are expensive, so the children tried selling everything from candy to chances to earn cash.

But Rose wanted to rely on a more self-supporting method, which is how the Discovery Place Preschool for Little People came in.

She also said she is done for good with "tagging," the fundraising method of walking up to vehicles stopped at red lights to ask for money. Several weeks ago, one drill-team member was hit by an impatient motorist trying to go around a stopped car whose driver was contributing money. Fortunately, the girl was not seriously injured, but Rose is not willing to take more risks. "I will never go out and tag again … it’s not worth their life for a dollar," she said.

She found a safer and more reliable program in afterschool tutoring beginning in 1998. She put her drill-team members to work helping other students at three locations, including Penrose Elementary, 78th Street and Este Avenue. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade were offered assistance with reading and math skills. Rose later started a summer day camp at Penrose. These programs soon evolved into Discovery Place, a daycare center for children from 6 months to 5 years old. The facility opened July 1 at 2031 S. Seventh St.

Rose, 39, said she likes the aspect of kids caring for kids, with adult supervision, of course.

"We have a lot of teens. I want to teach them how to work with children and have respect for them," said Rose, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter.

She said she chose a logical location for the center.

"I wanted to come back to South Philadelphia. I grew up here," said Rose, who lived in Passyunk Homes and graduated from South Philadelphia High and Temple University. "My knowledge and experience would be appreciated here."

The facility allows the teens on the drill team to earn money, and the daycare center, like the Youth Enrichment Program’s other nonprofit ventures, helps fund the squad, she added.

The daycare facility, which was a medical center in its previous incarnation, is licensed to handle as many as 38 children. The center now houses seven children and three staff members (well below the state-mandated ratio of four children per staff member, Rose pointed out), and more staff will be hired as the enrollment for the daycare center grows.

"Patience will bring rewards," Rose said. "If you are bringing a good program, parents will tell parents and it will grow."

The money to open the center came out of Rose’s own pocket, as does the rent each month, she said. Plans are in the works to add a kitchen on the second floor of the building, and to serve breakfast, lunch and possibly dinner. Another bathroom will probably be added as well to allow the center to care for 60 to 70 children.

"There’s no way I can do that now … without getting a grant from the state," she said. Rose is working with several South Philly politicians to obtain government grants.

The center is now open 7 a.m.-7 p.m., but Rose is contemplating keeping it open 24 hours a day. Prices for the daycare center depend on the income of the family as well as the age of the child.

"I can’t stay free, even though we’re nonprofit, because we don’t have any political grants. We haven’t been able to get the big grants because we’re not politically connected," Rose said. "You need to be politically connected, if you’re running a positive program, in order to get the things you need."

She said she has never been afraid to ask for what she believes the neighborhood needs, which is how the Eastwick Commandoes began in the first place.

"I had attended a couple of [community] meetings, and after the second meeting, I said, ‘Well, what are you guys going to do? Nobody seems to want to do anything but to complain.’ So at that point I decided to challenge them and say, ‘Look, I’m willing to start a program for the children, what about you?’ Well, nobody else had stood up, and here I had already put myself out there, and that’s how the drill team started."

Rose herself was a member of a drill team when she was a teenager, cementing her interest in the activity. The Eastwick Commandoes have competed in tournaments both inside and outside the United States, finishing in first place in several competitions, and recently returned from a trip to Kentucky.

But Rose said she is distressed by the overall shortage of activities for youths.

"Drill teams, basketball teams, baseball teams, hockey teams, arts … all those things are the activities they took out of schools that people are trying to keep going, and these are the things that help kids stay out of trouble," she said.

Rose said there is a common theme to each of the programs she starts.

"The main focus is educating children through activity, through employment and also showing them how to be mentors and leaders."

For more information on the Eastwick Commandoes or the Discovery Place Preschool for Little People, call 215-755-7588.