On a recent Monday afternoon, a group of Frankford High School students broke into teams and began making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“Take pride in your work,” teacher Kristen Degregorio told her students. “Make sure you do it at a high standard.”
Every week, the class, made up of students with different intellectual disabilities ages 18 and 21, makes 60 “community love bags” each containing a sandwich, snacks and an inspiration quote stapled to the outside.
Then, Degregorio packs the food into her car and drives to Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street and distributes the bags to homeless people in the area along with Margaux Murphy, of the Sunday Love Project, a local nonprofit.
To fund the effort, the students in Degregorio’s life skills support class operate a cafe at Frankford High School, selling coffee and snacks to faculty and students.
“They pretty much run the show,” said Degregorio, who lives on the border between Port Richmond and Fishtown.
Degregorio’s efforts and the project, dubbed the “Love Cafe,” will be honored later this month at the National Liberty Museum in Old City. She will receive the Teacher as Hero Award at a May 11 ceremony along with 12 other teachers from the Philadelphia area.
She was nominated by another teacher at Frankford High School.
“I absolutely love what I do. I love the students that I work with,” Degregorio said. “Teaching’s kind of like being a parent. There’s not much appreciation. You don’t go into it expecting to be appreciated.”
The Love Cafe began last April, and Degregorio and her daughter kept the program running during the summer. The idea really came from the students, Degregorio said.
“It’s something they see every day,” she said. “It’s something that hits very close to home for a lot of them.”
She explained that they have seen the effects of the opioid crisis firsthand, and many know someone who is homeless. About a quarter of the class is in foster care, Degregorio said.
“We went on trips, and we would see the homeless people under the bridge” near Lehigh Avenue, said student William Klahr, 19, of Tacony.
Driving by the homeless encampments and seeing people sleeping in the street inspired the class to launch the cafe. Students said making the sandwiches and filling the bags makes them feel good.
“It’s the right thing to do,” student Ahmani Butler, 19, of the Lower Northeast, said. “It’s not bad helping someone. It doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Degregorio’s job is to prepare her students for life after high school. The reason they are still in school is to help them make a successful transition into a world where a high percentage of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed.
That’s where the cafe comes in. It’s sort of like a corner store the students operate inside Frankford High School.
“I really wanted them to work on skills they would need for when they leave high school,” Degregorio said.
Rafeek Taylor, 19, of Frankford, said the experience has been beneficial for him.
“In the future, I plan on getting a job that involves me interacting with people,” he said.
There’s also an added layer — many people living on the street also have intellectual disabilities. Degregorio said she has spent time talking to her students about the factors that lead to homelessness.
She said her goal is to help her students to not end up in the same position as the people the Love Cafe benefits.
“It’s really important for me as a teacher to help my students be set up with as much support and services that they can before they graduate because it’s kind of like, they’re at school, they get all these services and supports, and then it’s like a switch,” Degregorio said. “Once they graduate, what’s out there?”
“Some of my students who have a more severe intellectual disability, I fear that once they leave school, they’re not going to have their friends,” she added. “It can be a very lonely life.”
Degregorio said it’s her job to make sure her students are registered with Philadelphia Intellectual Disability Services before they leave Frankford High. The agency offers services and support for people with special needs.
The National Liberty Museum received 77 applications for the Teacher As Hero Award, and those chosen as winners, including Degregorio, will have their work documented in a special exhibit that will remain at the museum for a year.
The award recognizes “outstanding educators who represent best practices in teaching and serve as role models to their colleagues and students,” according to a statement from the museum.
“When I learn about the challenges and the issues that they have dealt with in their life, it just blows my mind,” Degregorio said.
“If I can provide an environment where they feel good about themselves and they can do good and feel good and (have) a positive environment, and if I can do what I can to help them continue getting support after high school, then that’s what gives me satisfaction,” she added. ••