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Glen’s Village: From a trauma-filled childhood to the Ivy League

Part 1 of 3

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. The scene took place a short drive from the University of Pennsylvania campus, but it might have been worlds away.

Glen Casey, then 10 or 11 years old, watched in fascination as his father sat in the bedroom cutting up cocaine for resale.

“He was just sitting on the bed, just chop, chop, chopping it up,” recalls Glen. “Because, when you first buy it, it’s hard, and you want to smoothen it out.”

When it was time to pick up the cash, Glen was there, too.

“A lot of times when my dad would take me to his clientele, they were really friendly, so I didn’t understand the dangers,” says Glen, now 20.

“I knew I was with my dad, and we were going from place to place, and I saw what I saw. … I didn’t understand the whole reality of the situation.”

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” holds as true in West Philadelphia as anywhere.

Many people helped Glen on his journey from some of the toughest streets in the city to the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 2017.

His mother, Wilhelmina Casey, was too ill to work, but still determined to create a better life for her son.

Dedicated Philadelphia teachers and mental health professionals also provided support, as did various role models and mentors.

With that support system, a healthy dose of determination, resilience – and, yes, plain luck – he was able to make it.

It is both an inspiring story and a cautionary tale of how a boy raised in poverty overcame the obstacles that befall many young Black men and became a success and role model for those coming up after him.

Inspiring because of what Glen achieved.

But cautionary because his success was against the odds that still doom too many young men in similar situations to poverty, dead-end jobs, prison, or an early death. And because some of the very programs that helped Glen come into his own in high school have been wiped out by budget cuts.

The odds against him

Glen Casey is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. Many teachers, mentors, mental health professionals, and others provided the support needed to get him to the Ivy League. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)

The numbers tell one part of the story.

According to 2011 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black males ages 15-34 were 10 times as likely to be murdered as Whites from the same age group.

African Americans as a whole are incarcerated at six times the rate of Whites and are more likely to be sent to prison when arrested for illegal drug use.

Students from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out of school than those from wealthier families.

“Growing up, I felt like I faced a somewhat large amount of adversity just coming from the neighborhood I grew up in, which is over on 52nd and Haverford,” Glen says. “A lot of people refer to it as the ‘dark side of West Philly.’”

His father was deported back to Jamaica in 2005, when Glen was in 5th grade.

One brother died of an accidental gunshot wound when Glen was an infant. Another brother was heavily into drugs and gangs. Other economic opportunities were lacking.

Gunfire echoed through the night so frequently that residents barely noticed it, and they certainly didn’t call the police. A cousin was shot seven times in a house two blocks from where Glen lived – and survived. Glen’s father once narrowly missed being shot in a gunfight outside a neighborhood bar.

“Glen didn’t think he was going to get out of the hood,” says Rich Neal, a behavioral health worker for NorthEast Treatment Centers (NET) who was at his side from 3rd grade on.

“He was going to be either dead or in jail.”

Da Sheila Williams, Glen’s therapist, recalls going to his house for their first meeting when he was in 9th grade.

“His environment was very dismal,” she says.

“There were prostitutes around the corner, boarded-up houses. … You know there weren’t many people going to college there.”

Finding support

Glen Casey’s life has been filled with many trials, including seeing his father deal drugs and having to cope with the accidental death of his brother Mars. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)

Even when someone survives childhood on the “dark side of West Philly,” the trauma they have been through usually takes a serious toll.

A series of studies on “adverse childhood experiences,” known as the ACE studies, measure the frequency and effects of 14 types of traumatic experiences, including witnessing violence, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and having a household member who is a substance abuser, is mentally ill, or has been incarcerated.

Roy Wade, a pediatrician and ACEs researcher with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that someone with Casey’s background would typically experience problems in “academic skills, ability to maintain a job, [and] ability to maintain relationships.”

But sometimes there are balancing factors, Wade says, like the presence of a caring adult who plays a major role in a child’s life.

In Glen’s case, that role was played by his mother, Wilhelmina Casey.

In his earliest years, Glen says, his mom was active in the community center across the street from their house. There she tutored and served every year as Santa Claus, giving away gifts collected in a neighborhood toy drive.

“My mom was a familiar face around the neighborhood,” he says. “A lot of people knew her.”

But she was also fighting arthritis, heart and lung disease, and severe depression, so she was often confined to her bed. Still, she kept her faith in Glen and made sure she didn’t lose him to the neighborhood.

“One thing I really appreciate about her was that she kept a leash around my neck,” he recalls.

“I actually wasn’t able to leave the block [by himself] until I was around 14. Maybe I could go to Johnson’s Playground, which was literally three minutes away. So it’s like I didn’t really have the opportunity to be in the street.”

Ironically, some of his rare trips around the neighborhood were with his father, so his dad could pick up money from lower-level drug dealers.

“When I talk about my dad, I don’t like to undermine him, because he did care for us financially,” Glen says.

“A lot of my friends who I look at didn’t have any dads at all. They don’t know who their fathers are. So for my dad to be man enough to be there for me and provide for me meant a lot to me.” The two still talk occasionally by phone.

“Dad made a lot of money,” Glen says. “He made sure we were good. And we had, like, pretty nice things around the house, like big-screen TVs, a washing machine, dryer, stuff like that, that my dad brought in. He always made sure that I was taken care of. “

But the money came with a price. And even if Glen Casey didn’t understand it, his mother did.

“My mom knew what my dad was into, and she knew what my other brother was into. It was just, like, ‘How can you save the last one?’ I was the youngest.

“My mom saved me from that lifestyle. She constantly told me, ‘You cannot hang out with these people, because you could get into trouble just for something that they did, or even worse, lose your life over something that they did.’”

Looking back, Glen is grateful for that.

“Kinda reflecting on those times, my friends are still in the same place,” he says.

“And now I go to the University of Pennsylvania, man. It’s crazy when I think about that. It’s like you go from selling, literally, crack on the corner to an elite, Ivy League, world-class institution. I never imagined being a part of that space.”

Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook. Dorian Geiger is a multimedia journalist who has previously covered summer learning loss for the Notebook.

This is part one of a three-part series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the van Ameringen Foundation.

Part 2: A mother reached out, and a son got needed services

Part 3: A student’s turnaround gets him to Penn, despite painful new challenges

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