Charity in need

The organizers of Extra Mile Outreach Center, a charity that has donated food, clothing and other goods to thousands in need, are facing a situation shared by many of the people they have helped over the years.

They are homeless.

The founder and driving force behind the charity, Freda Lewis, affectionately known as Mother Lewis to her neighbors in Point Breeze, died of cancer Dec. 19, 2001.

Lewis had operated Extra Mile Outreach from the Grace Covenant Community Fellowship Church, 2413 Wharton St., for more than 17 years. A few months after her death, Lewis’ grandson, Vernon Cliett, and sister, Rita Askew, were told they could no longer use the church’s hall as their headquarters.

As a result, Extra Mile Outreach will not be able to collect or distribute donations to the needy this holiday season, despite the best efforts of Cliett and Askew.

"We are in a transition at this particular time," explained Cliett, 43, whom Lewis tapped to take over as executive director prior to her death.

Cliett must juggle his responsibilities with the charity along with two jobs. He works nights as a social worker at a youth detention center in the Northeast and has a day job with the Department of Corrections.

"I don’t know how my grandmother did it," Cliett said. "My job is pretty flexible during the day, but when I try to get things done, it is just a lot of work."

Askew, 78, who worked with her sister from the day Lewis started the charity, recently fell and broke her shoulder. Her heart is willing to help, but her body isn’t, although Askew did bake several cakes and pies to distribute to people in need.

She said it feels strange not to be working at the church during the holiday season.

"All we can do is feel bad. We know what she wanted to do. Her whole life was helping others," Askew said. "It is really hard. It’s hard for me to sit here."

Askew, of the 1700 block of Tasker Street, would not comment on the circumstances behind parting ways with Grace Covenant Church. Cliett said his great-aunt just called him one day and said they had to move everything out.

"Everything" includes three commercial freezers, a commercial stove, a deep-fryer and coffee machines — all of which Cliett is temporarily storing in his home on the 2000 block of Dickinson Street while he searches for a new location in South Philly. The charity distributed the last of its food before closing.

One church, South Philadelphia Bible Fellowship Community and World Missions Center, 24th and Federal streets, has offered to help. The problem is, the church’s building is undergoing extensive renovations, Cliett said. Even its congregation is meeting at a local hotel during the construction.

Cliett is still looking for a place Extra Mile Outreach could move into sooner.

"It if could be someplace else, that would be fine," he said. "Someplace down here in the community where my grandmother can touch some people."

Cliett has refrained from opening the phone book Mother Lewis kept with the names and phone numbers of people and businesses who donated food, money, clothing and other necessities to Extra Mile Outreach in the past. As soon as the charity has a new location, he will begin making calls.

"By next year, I am determined to have it up and running," Cliett said.

Askew and Lewis were the youngest of nine children, all raised in South Philly.

Their mother, Bertha Gunther, was an ordained minister at Tindley United Methodist Church at Broad and Fitzwater streets, and their father, James, was known throughout the neighborhood for helping to feed the needy.

Lewis earned a degree in sociology from Temple University and worked as a social worker for the Mayor’s Office of Community Services until she retired in 1984.

Shortly after she stopped working, she started the Extra Mile Outreach Center and, with help from three generations of family members, began providing food, clothing and education to the needy in the neighborhood. Over the years, Extra Mile Outreach became a haven for neighbors looking for a book to read, a hot meal or someone to talk to.

Former mayor Wilson Goode and Mayor John Street recognized Lewis’ charitable work. Council President Anna Verna honored her with a proclamation for providing more than 40 years of service to the Wharton Square community and creating a reading program for children and adults in that area.