A lot of things have crossed my mind while interviewing people over the years, but I can’t recall praying to a higher power to look after the person in front of me.
Until I met Brian Ward.
I found my way to Ward through Wallace Peeples. Peeples, better known as Wallo267, is a former inmate who built a huge Instagram following with a contraband phone while still in prison. He’s become even more popular on the outside for his infectious motivational energy.
I asked Wallo to take over my Instagram account for a day last month to help me find untold stories that deserved attention. He started with Ward, a balloon artist.
It’s probably unfair, but when I think of someone twisting balloons into various shapes, I think of sad, old clowns on the back end of their careers – not a charming 19-year-old from North Philly.
So, on a recent rainy weekday, I made my way to Ward’s home on West Cumberland Street. It was one of his few days off, between his balloon business, his classes at Community College of Philadelphia and his part-time job at an institution for adults with intellectual disabilities.
We sat at the family’s dining room table while his two younger sisters busied themselves upstairs. He was babysitting while his parents were at work.
Of course, we talked about his mad balloon skills – we’re not just talking simple swords and dogs here, though I loved the white dog he made for me. Brian the Balloon Artist, as he’s known, is your guy if you find yourself in need of a dinosaur made of balloons or arches to rival the golden ones we’re all familiar with.
But our conversation quickly turned to how the fire to be an entrepreneur was lit by his father. After putting in a full day at the job that pays the bills as a maintenance worker in Center City for the last 20 years, Ward’s father – also Brian – moves into his kitchen to start a second gig as a cake maker.
Often standing at his side is his namesake, tasked when he was younger with washing dishes and cleaning counter tops, and then as he got older, helping with the cakes.
The long hours spent together served as an opportunity for the father to impart hard-earned lessons to his only son:
Work is honorable.
Be the best at whatever you do, no matter how small.
Treat people as you’d like to be treated.
The lessons stuck as the younger Ward made a list of his own goals:
Finish college. Start a business. Travel. Don’t become a statistic.
At the dining room table the other day, Ward talked wistfully of a school trip to the Grand Canyon when he was 12, where for the first time he saw a sky full of stars unencumbered by the city’s lights.
“It was just a life-changing feeling,” he said. “A reminder that there’s more to life than what you see on a regular basis.”
Among the top of his accomplishments – growing up.
“Growing up in Philly,” he said, “it’s a blessing just to see 18.”
I’m not sure why those words landed especially hard that day. I’ve heard other young men express the same sentiment. In a city with daily shootings, where 26 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 have been killed this year, this isn’t just hyperbole.
This young man, with his irrepressible smile and energy and his cheering section of family and friends and now, at least one columnist, reminded me of all the potential every kid in this city has, everything we should grieve over when another young person dies in the city and we barely blink.
When I confided in Ward’s dad about my prayer, he didn’t miss a beat.
“I pray for him every day.”
I left Ward feeling something there doesn’t seem to be enough of these days: hope.
A few streets over from his house, I found myself driving behind a car with a RIP sticker on its back window. It was a memorial for a young man who had died recently. One street later I passed by a mural made for another young man who was killed in 2014.
Both were dead before they were 20.