West Chester to Chester: Serving and spreading love

By Allie Stein
May 3, 2016

19 miles away.

It took a tragedy to bring two cities, just 19 miles apart, together.

West Chester, Pa.  has a high school graduation rate of 93 percent.  The West Chester Area School District ranks 22 out of 577.

Just seven percent of people live below the poverty line and the average household income is $86,000.  The average house value is $325,000.

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The Hicks family in San Francisco on July 18, 2010. Photo Credit / Karen Hicks

In contrast, the city of Chester, Pa., has a high school graduation rate of 56 percent.  Out of all the school districts in Pennsylvania, the Chester-Upland School District rank’s 559 out of 577.

Thirty-three percent of people living in Chester live below the poverty line and the average household income in $27,000.  The average house value is $66,000.

The two cities could not be more unlike, but the Hicks family tried to bring them together.  This is their story.

The Hicks family of West Chester

Karen and Andy Hicks are residents of West Chester and have been for the last 22 years.

They have four children, Andrew, Kelly, Amelia and Kyle.

In July of 2010, Karen and Andy, along with their children, took a vacation to California.  They began in San Francisco and had plans to continue down the Coastal Highway to stop in Santa Monica, Big Sur, Santa Barbara, Monterey and end in Los Angeles.

At the time, their oldest Andrew was 17, Kelly was 15, Amelia was 13 and Kyle was 11.

On the third day of the trip, on July 19th, the family was hiking the Coastal Trail near Muir Beach.

“Andrew and Kyle were about 100 feet in front of Andy and I and just a little bit out of sight of the girls and I,” Karen Hicks said. “Andrew wanted to get a better view of the Pacific Ocean and he slipped and fell and he lost his earthly life that day.”

The Hicks family spent a week after losing their son and brother in California, waiting to be cleared to fly back home with him.

“We spent that week talking so much about what Andrew was passionate about and what really mattered to him,” Karen Hicks said.

Andrew was not like most 17 year olds.  His appreciations and concerns were beyond that of most teenage boys.

“Andrew had a great appreciation for where he was born and raised,” Karen Hicks said. “He loved West Chester, Pa.,  and he felt fortunate to be in a great school district and a pretty town that was filled with lots of opportunities.”

“His friends and he used to do this “WC” hand symbol and he would make that gesture anywhere he went,” Karen Hicks said.

At such a young age, Andrew was very much aware of social injustices from working very closely with the children of Chester, Pa..

“He would spend a week of his summers working in Chester and living in the Frederick Douglass School,” Karen Hicks said. “He saw how poor the schools were, the limitations that were put on the children and what little opportunity the people of Chester have.”

During his time in Chester, Andrew did what he could to help the families and children in need. He taught swim lessons, played games with the kids and did a lot of physical work on the school.  Most importantly, he showed the children he was working with that they were loved and cared for.

With all of this work he was doing in Chester, Andrew also brought home a lot of anger about social injustices.

“At the very beginning of our vacation in California, we were driving from the airport in San Francisco to our hotel in a rental van,” Karen Hicks said.  “Andrew said to me ‘Mom why does it have to be so obvious where the white people live and where the black people live no matter where we go?’

Karen says this segregation really bothered her oldest son.  Andrew realized that whether it was on purpose or not, there always seemed to be segregation and it resulted in lack of opportunity.

The Beginning

The family discussions in California following Andrew’s passing made them realize that they needed to do something to communicate Andrew’s passions to his high school friends.

“He was not really vocal about it, it was just who he was,” Karen Hicks said. “So, our thought in California was when we get home we’re going to try to do an event to show the Henderson High School kids what Chester is like and show the Chester kids that there are other people that care about them.”

Just two weeks later, the Hicks family did their first event, a back-to-school supplies drive.

“It just kept going,” Karen Hicks said. “High school kids were stepping forward and saying ‘Oh I want to run an event!’ and that meant organization and resources, but they recruited friends to come and each event was a success.”

On Oct. 30, 2010, just three months after Andrew’s passing, the Foundation held a fall carnival in the city of Chester.

Up until this point, Karen and her family did not truly realize the immense interest that had grown in creating a connection between the children and families of Chester and the high school students from West Chester.

660 Chester children and their families attended the event and 75 high school students came to volunteer and help run it.

“After that, we started to see the same faces at the events, both from the high school and from Chester,” Karen Hicks said.  “So, we decided to create a program that allowed for more of a one-on-one mentoring relationship between the Chester children and the high school students.”

Warrior Guides began and with this program, 100 Chester children were matched with 100 high school students.

“The relationship in Warrior Guides meant that the high school student and the Chester child were keeping in contact with each other and their families were somewhat getting to know each other,” Karen Hicks said. “It is more of a strengthened relationships.”

Within just a year of starting the Foundation, the Hicks family had connections with hundreds of families and now a mentoring program.  With so much success and difference being made, there were still obstacles the family found they were facing.

“A huge obstacle for anyone trying to make a difference is trust,” Karen Hicks said. “When we first started, the Chester families did not know who we were, what our motivation was or why we were doing any of it.  They were very suspicious.”

Karen says it took a little bit of time before the Chester families truly saw that her motives were pure.

“Even five and a half years later we still need open events because there is still young second and third graders who like to come see what it is about without further commitment,” Karen Hicks said. “By the time the child is in fifth grade they really get it and are willing to let a high school student that they don’t know into their life.”

Karen and her family also implemented a program called RISE after they saw how many students wanted to continue on with the Foundation after their fifth grade year was over and they could no longer participate in Warrior Guides.  RISE is a teen leadership program for sixth through eighth grade students.

The Foundation runs several events a year for Chester children and West Chester high school students. Photo Credit / Karen Hicks

Effects on Chester Families

Alta Lane is a single mother who lives in Chester with her four children.  All of her children are in varying stages throughout the Foundation and have been since 2011.

Lane has twin boys who are 15, a son who is 13 and a daughter who is 12.  All three of her sons are in RISE, while her daughter is finishing up with Warrior Guides.

Lane has seen so many benefits not only for her own family, but for other families in Chester as well.

“My children have had great experiences and taken wonderful trips,” Lane said. “They’ve been taught excellent values like respect, integrity and service.”

However, Lane believes her children have gained so much more from the strong investment that the Foundation has taken and continues to take in all of the children and families involved.

“There is such an investment into who they are as people,” Lane said.  “I’ve seen my children grow into their own character as a result of participating in the program.  They’ve been given really great tools to help them develop and especially in the teenage years, this has been excellent.”

Lane is also very involved in the Foundation and has a great relationship with Karen.  The two work very closely from time to time.

“She confides in me occasionally for advice from a parental perspective,” Lane said. “Sometimes it’s tough to run the program and to see both perspectives, so she’ll call me and I’ll give her my thoughts as a parent and as a person who is seeing the organization run from the outside.”

Lane not only gives Karen advice, but she also volunteers and helps out when needed.  She helps with registration at events and make phone calls.

Lane believes there are countless benefits the Foundation has on the city and community of Chester.

“The people who benefit are the people who appreciate it the most and don’t take it for granted or see it as people here to babysit or be a distraction for children,” Lane said. “People who benefit the most are also the ones who see the investment and are willing to give back as well and have equal investment in their children’s character development.”

Lane believes not every parent is as equally involved in their child’s character development.

From a single parent’s perspective, Lane believes an organization like the Foundation is even more beneficial as it shows children that there are more people out there who care about them and want them to be successful.

“It’s not just me saying ‘Do this, do that’ or ‘Be this, be that,’ Lane said.  “Instead there are people showing them how a young man or a young lady supports themselves and how a young man or a young lady should act in certain situations.”

Lane believes for parents, there can also even be some benefits.

“Having the extra support gives us extra confidence and it’s very helpful and encouraging,” Lane said. “It also gives us a break sometimes.  Every once in awhile our children go away and we can catch our breath, while knowing that they are safe, growing and learning.”

Does Lane view the foundation as a “charity?” Absolutely not.

“I couldn’t classify the Foundation as a charity,” Lane said. “When I think of charity, I think of a spontaneous one time interaction in order to meet a single need.”

“When I think of Andrew Hicks, I think of ongoing relationships,” Lane said. “The relationships are continuously growing and they don’t stop at a certain age.  There is always movement and growth.”

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The Foundation runs several events a year for Chester children and West Chester high school students. Photo Credit / Karen Hicks

“God totally made the whole thing happen.”

Karen Hicks, along with the rest of her family, truly believe that God is behind the Foundation and continues to make it all happen.

“He gave us the mission, he gave us the incentive and he opened doors for us,” Karen Hicks said. “He has a mission in mind.”

A strong faith has helped Karen answer the difficult questions and think about why her son had to leave his earthly life so soon.

“A lot of the why questions like ‘Why would you take my son?’ ‘Why did Andrew have to die?’ have maybe already been answered by my faith,” Karen Hicks said.

The Hicks family are firm believers in Jesus and that he is their Lord and Savior.

“I believe he died so that I could live eternally,” Karen Hicks said. “That is my real life and my real home.  I know where Andrew is and I know I’m going to see him again.”

Karen has full intention of fulfilling the mission God has given to her and her entire family.

“If this is the mission for our family, then the only question or concern is how is going to unravel,” Karen Hicks said.

“God did not give me natural skills to do this,” Karen Hicks said. “I sold computers for a living and then I was a mom for 20 years, so I don’t know how to do social work and I’m not an educator or an event coordinator.”

Karen says that God will continue to either provide people and resources to keep the Foundation going successfully, or dry up the resources and change the plan.  It is all in his eyes.

“If this is the job he has for for me, he has to bring me people and open doors and so far that is what he has done,” Karen Hicks said. “If he wants to shut it down, he will dry the resources up. For now this is the mission he’s given us and everything we do is reliant on him.”

When asked if Andrew would be happy with everything the Foundation has done, Karen and her oldest daughter Kelly both feel similarly.

“Andrew would be pleased that we are trying to make every effort we can to chip away at the injustices that exist,” Karen Hicks said. “However, I don’t look for Andrew to be happy, I just want to make God happy.  I’m willing and I just want him to see that.”

Kelly Hicks is a member of the board of directors for the Foundation and a junior at the University of Maryland.

“We will see Andrew again and I think he is well aware of everything we are doing to continue his passion in his wake,” Kelly Hicks said. “I think Andrew is just glad knowing that God’s plan is always good and intentional.”

Before Andrew passed away, he had the goal of affecting just one Henderson High School student for Christ.

“It turns out that Andrew has affected way more than one person for Christ,” Kelly Hicks said. “God multiplied Andrew’s goal time and time again through his obedience. Although my family suffered a terrible loss, it is a temporary loss.”

“His death was not an accident, even though that is what many people may call it.”

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Allie Stein

Senior communication major with a passion for writing, storytelling and speaking. Member of the women's swim team, former staff writer, assistant lifestyles editor for Loquitur and head sports anchor for LOQation Weekly News.

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