6th Grader Sparks Campaign For Homeless in Philadephia

By Vernon Loeb — October 10, 1984 3 min read

Philadelphia--What started as a donation by a 6th grader of a pillow and a blanket to a homeless man here has turned into a full-fledged campaign for this city’s homeless.

In the process, the dramatically mushrooming operation--complete with television attention and talk of movie and book deals--has turned the lives of the young donor, Trevor K. Ferrell, and his family upside down.

Last December, a television program on urban street people prompted 12-year-old Trevor of Gladwyne, Pa., to ask his parents how he could help. Frank and Alice Ferrell and their son drove into Philadelphia that night to give bedding to a homeless man on the sidewalk in front of the Union League, an exclusive businessmen’s club. (See Education Week, April 4, 1984.)

Soon, a local weekly newspaper picked up the story and people started volunteering to help Trevor distribute food and coffee to the homeless. And when the national media carried the story, letters and contributions poured in from every state in the nation and foreign countries.

Someone donated a van. A religious leader offered a 33-room mansion in north Philadelphia to be used to house the homeless people. And a local McDonald’s restaurant started supplying Big Macs and cheeseburgers for the nightly food runs from the affluent Main Line area of the city to a park on downtown 12th Street.

Trevor appeared numerous times on national television. His story was beamed around the world by the Voice of America. A book is planned for the spring by Harper and Row Publishers. A movie by one of Hollywood’s most successful directors is in the works.

And this month, Trevor Ferrell will join Mother Theresa and Mahatma Ghandi as a recipient of the esteemed John-Roger Foundation’s International Integrity Award, which includes a grant of $10,000 for each recipient.

Failed 6th Grade

But as Trevor’s father is the first to point out, “It isn’t all peaches and cream.”

Because of the time and effort he devoted to helping the street people last year, Trevor, who is dyslexic, failed the 6th grade at his local public school and is making up the year at a private school now. Last month, he enrolled in the Woodlynde School in Radnor, which offers small classes for average-to-bright children who have difficulty learning in large classrooms, Mr. Ferrell said in an interview last week.

Last year, when Trevor’s actions were publicized, classmates at the Welsh Valley Middle School taunted him, Mr. Ferrell said, calling him ''the blanket boy” and “the friend of the bums.”

“He came home crying many days,” he added. “It’s been hard for him, always having to watch everything that he says. But it’s something that made him stronger.”

And during “Trevor’s campaign"--the title one local newspaper gave to the boy’s efforts to help the homeless--Mr. Ferrell said he personally was faced with some difficult questions about how deeply he should allow his son to become involved.

“He has created an international awareness,” Mr. Ferrell said. “Do I let him do that or do I make him do his homework?”

But Mr. Ferrell said he reconciled the situation by letting Trevor “do his thing,” a decision he does not regret. “He’s handling it very well,” he said.

This year, however, the Ferrells have restricted Trevor’s visits into Philadelphia on behalf of the homeless people to two nights a week. And Trevor himself has decided that he does not want to be picked up at his new school in the van, which carries a “Trevor Cares” sign.

Financial Troubles

Financially, Trevor’s campaign is desperately short of money, according to the Ferrells. Mr. Ferrell, who sold a small electronics business to run the campaign, says the dilapidated mansion that was donated to the cause as a shelter needs $25,000 worth of plumbing, among other repairs. With sewage collecting in the basement, Mr. Ferrell refers to the home as “an albatross hanging around my neck.”

Emotionally, the Ferrells have had to deal with the stress that the notoriety has brought to their family, which includes three other children. They are also having to answer to people who are questioning their motives for allowing the campaign to escalate to such a degree: Currently, 75 Main Line families are cooking meals for Philadelphia’s homeless on a nightly basis and a local social-service agency is coordinating a national campaign that now has chapters in five cities.

“I honestly didn’t push him into this,” Mr. Ferrell said. “Trevor pulled us. I have doubts in my own head as to how I should have done this, but if I had to do it again, I probably would have done it the same way. I don’t question our motives. I feel good about our motives.”

Trevor’s reaction to the sensation is positive: “I’m glad I’m helping so many people,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as 6th Grader Sparks Campaign For Homeless in Philadephia