Elmer Smith: Tough times bring out the best in people, and these 2 have many thanks to give

IT'S STILL Thanksgiving at Dahlia Thompson's house in Logan and it might be for quite a while.

Thanksgiving is being extended in a corner house on Somerville Street, mainly because it is still her house.

Project Elijah Empowering Autism founder Eric D. Williams with his son, Elijah.

After raising her two children there and paying the mortgage faithfully for 14 years, she got swept up in the latest wave of foreclosures. Like Dahlia, 58 percent of those facing foreclosure this year are people who have lost their jobs.

When I wrote about her last month, she was eight months behind in her mortgage with a company that would not accept anything less than the $3,111 that was overdue. Without a job, the prospects looked bleak.

I didn't seek help for her. But some of you don't need to be asked. Anonymous readers sent small checks, Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church kicked in $500, Dahlia's sister sent money, and Congreso, a Hispanic community group, sent $2,000.

More importantly, she got a new job that pays more than enough to cover the $362 monthly payment. She will own her house outright by 2012.

"I called my children and said, 'I'm back on my feet,' " she told me this week. "They said, 'Mommy, for real?' They couldn't believe it.

"I had more than $4,000. I paid up all that I owed, and also November and December to be safe."

Yesterday, she celebrated the season with an old friend who came down from Canada to be with her for Thanksgiving.

"I haven't seen her since we were 13," she said Wednesday. "I'm going to cook for her."

On her stove, in her kitchen. In her house.


It might take a while to get Eric D. Williams out of Thanksgiving mode, too. Williams, founder of Project Elijah Empowering Autism (PEEA), is close to realizing a vision that has been driving him for years.

He is one of those people I've been telling you about this year who discover a need, then work to try to meet it.

Williams and hundreds of other parents in this area have not been able to find therapeutic, after-school programs for autistic children like his 12-year-old son, Elijah. Williams built a website that has become a listening post for parents like him. He has spent six years and a large chunk of his own money trying to find a center in West Philadelphia that low-to-moderate-income families with autistic children could afford.

He was still looking this summer when he met Alison Lai and Michelle Fang, two University of Pennsylvania juniors who were looking for ways to get Penn students involved with the fight against autism.

Their student organization, Penn Speaks for Autism, is providing the volunteers needed to staff the after-school center that PEEA and Penn Speaks are opening next month at Charles Drew Elementary School, 37th and Warren streets, near University City High School.

The school district is providing space at a community-assisted, after-school program it runs at Drew called "Freedom School."

"Penn Speaks is going to staff it with 20 to 25 qualified volunteers," Williams told me Wednesday. "Alan Speed, who runs the program at Drew, is someone I've known since we were meeting at Sayre Middle School.

"We'll start small, maybe 11 children that we will help with speech, cognitive, socialization. We didn't want this to just be a drop-off program.

"It's a structured program based on each child's individual education plan. We will help them with speech, cognitive, socialization and inclusion skills, and therapies to simulate sensory function.

"Because of the volunteers, we will always have at least a one-to-one ratio of students to staff.

"We're just getting started. But I've been at this so long, this feels like a victory to me."

Feels like a victory to Lai and Fang, too.

"We've been able to recruit students," Fang told me. "We wanted to mobilize. We were looking for ways to expand into the community."

They found Williams, who is still celebrating what might be his best Thanksgiving in the last six years.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith