(Editor’s note: This article is part of One United Lancaster’s coverage of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania’s 2023 Homes Within Reach conference.)
Milton Hershey thought deeply and holistically about social and individual welfare, Garry Gilliam said.
The chocolate magnate conceived the eponymous community he established in Derry Township, Dauphin County, as an ecosystem, with a free school for his employees’ children and abundant public amenities. The Milton Hershey School, founded for orphans, educates the whole person: mind, body and spirit.
There should be other towns and other schools that take the same approach, Gilliam said. Where are they?
Gilliam, the keynote speaker at the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania’s annual Homes Within Reach conference last week, is working to supply an answer to that question. His interest in Hershey’s legacy is deeply personal: He is a Milton Hershey School graduate and credits the school with shaping his character and skill set.
He went on to play football at Penn State and for two NFL teams. Now retired from the game, the 33-year-old is the founder and CEO of an LLC called The Bridge Eco-System and a related nonprofit, the Empower at the Bridge Foundation. Their mission: Turning blighted inner-city properties across the U.S. into mixed-use “eco villages,” with housing, business incubators, urban agriculture and facilities for education, the arts, sports and entertainment.
The flagship project is Harrisburg’s former Bishop McDevitt High School, which the organization acquired in 2019. It is to be redeveloped over the next five years in line with The Bridge’s “Work-Eat-Live-Learn-Play” model.
The idea, Gilliam said, is to counter systematic oppression with systematic empowerment.
Harrisburg is Gilliam’s hometown. The child of an impoverished single mother, he showed his academic talent early: In public elementary school, he had plenty of time to goof off and distract his other classmates because he completed his assignments so quickly.
His mother valued education and knew he needed an environment that would stretch him and test his capabilities. He vividly described the day she dropped him off at the Milton Hershey School. Not knowing how to explain without causing a scene, she simply drove away, leaving it to a school staff member to drop the bombshell that Gilliam was now a student there. Gilliam said he cried himself to sleep every night for two years. (His mother maintained contact, visiting him on weekends.)
“I had to grow up fast,” he said. So he threw himself into the school’s curriculum, sports and activities. He embraced its ethos: A commitment to the Golden Rule, a focus on well-rounded social and emotional development (it “normalized therapy,” he said, and encouraged students to explore the world’s wisdom traditions) and the responsibility to pay it forward.
He persevered through setbacks in his college football career, including a brutal knee injury that led to a life-threatening staph infection, and ultimately achieved his dream of playing in the NFL. In 2015, he made a crucial catch to spark the Seattle Seahawks’ comeback win in the NFC championship, sending them to Super Bowl XLIX.
All the while, he kept observing, and evaluating what he saw against the lessons he learned growing up. It bothered him that wealthy corporations isolated themselves from their surrounding communities instead of investing in them; or that many of his fellow football players never took their community engagement past meet-and-greets and football clinics.
Being a football player gives you social capital, he said: He was determined to use his to drive social change, to bring resources and stakeholders together and expand opportunity in marginalized communities.
He urged his audience to work together and do the same, leading them in a shout of, “Let’s build!”
“We’ve all identified disparities in our communities,” he said. “We even have solutions. So, what are we waiting for?”