Mainstay of People's Emergency Center is retiring

When Estelle Brickhouse was a little girl in Southwest Philadelphia, her father flew into sudden rages and beat her with his belt, flailing away blindly while she tried to protect her face.

"My right hand looked like a baseball glove," she said.

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Gloria Guard holds Sheilah Scott, 3, while she speaks with the girl's mother. Guard is retiring from the People's Emergency Center, which helps abused and homeless women and children.

Her father's girlfriend once accused Brickhouse of stealing pennies out of a jar and punished her by holding her right hand over a flame on the stove.

When Brickhouse walked into the People's Emergency Center in the late 1980s, with burn scars on the fingers of her right hand and emotional scars in her heart, she was a pregnant, homeless, 21-year-old mother of two very young children who was angry and without hope.

But by 1992, when this reporter interviewed her at PEC on Spring Garden near 39th Street, she had progressed from the agency's homeless shelter to its transitional housing to a permanent rental unit - all under one roof.

She had earned her GED and gone through computer training, psychological counseling and parenting classes. She had a job working with PEC alumni to improve programs for other homeless mothers.

"One day, Estelle will be totally in the mainstream world, going to work, paying a mortgage," predicted Gloria Guard, PEC president, on that winter afternoon 18 years ago. "You won't be able to tell her from your next-door neighbor."

Yesterday, Guard, 64, packed up her mementos in her PEC office - preparing to retire tomorrow after helping thousands of abused, homeless women and their children during her 27 years as president. Her prediction about Brickhouse, she said, had come true.

"Estelle Brickhouse has her own place now, a few blocks from here," Guard said. "She's a certified nurse's assistant. She's fine.

"That's what's kept me going - seeing the abused, homeless women who come in here start to put one step in front of another, eating the elephant one bite at a time.

"Then I see those same women years later, running their lives, helping their kids with their homework and making sure they get to bed on time. What we want for them is the promise of mainstream America. They just want to be like everybody else."

Guard recalled how far PEC has come since she took over in 1983, when it was an emergency homeless shelter, renting space in an old, dilapidated West Philadelphia church.

"We had every member of the rodent family," Guard said. "One day, our exterminator . . . proudly said to me, 'Every month, we have a prize for killing the biggest cockroach. I won this month. I got it mounted on a corkboard.'"

"We had pigeons living inside the building," Guard said. "Early in my tenure as president, I killed a pigeon. It had a bad wing. It hobbled around. It looked sick. We had little kids all over the place, and I know pigeons carry a lot of bad stuff.

"One day, when the children weren't there, I picked up a cinder block and dropped it on the pigeon's head. I called our maintenance guy and said, 'Um, there's this dead pigeon . . . ' "

PEC was forced to leave the church during structural repairs. Guard found a former factory on Spring Garden near 39th for sale.

"I thought, '40,000 square feet! Great!' " she said. "But an architect made me stand at one end of the building and look down the main wall. I saw this enormous bulge, like somebody had pumped the wall full of air.

"He said, 'In 10 years, this wall will be in the street.' That was not a good sign. I looked up and saw sky instead of roof. That was not a good sign, either."

But PEC bought the building, partnered with Pennrose Properties, and Guard realized her dream of housing a homeless shelter, transitional housing and permanent housing under one roof.

Over the years, under Guard's leadership, PEC developed more than 120 vacant properties in the surrounding West Powelton neighborhood into 164 rental units, 28 ownership units and a desperately needed playground.

"You see what Gloria's done to change the neighborhood," said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who was still trying to convince her to stay earlier this week.

"You see beautiful gardens, homes, community buildings, a beautiful playground, and people getting housing, training, jobs," Blackwell said. "Gloria's a major part of transforming the life and landscape of West Philadelphia. That's why I keep trying to get her to stay."

Guard said that, as a farewell gift, she was just informed that the ongoing $2.5 million makeover of the main PEC building will include changing its name to "Gloria's Place."

She smiled, and for a moment, the high-energy, mile-a-minute talker was speechless.

Guard is allowing herself a two-week breather before beginning her new, but related, career at One Economy Corporation, convincing developers of low-income housing to make low-cost Internet access available to all their residents.

"Low-income families want to be able to sit around in their pajamas at night and access the Internet, just like everyone else," Guard said. "All they want is to be part of the American mainstream. And that's all I've ever wanted for them."