It's nearing 8 o'clock on a cold weekday night in Philadelphia. The brokers, barristers and businessmen have long since had their cocktails and departed for the suburbs, leaving the downtown area to the street people, many of whom try to eke some vestige of warmth out of the steam that rises from the subway grates. A blue Volkswagen van rounds the corner. Inside are a man and a woman and their son. The boy fixes his attention on an animated scarecrow pacing the sidewalk, venting obscenities into the dark. "It's Chico," says the lad. "He's in pretty bad shape."

Within seconds, Chico has spotted the van. He is walking toward it, crying, "Where is my little buddy? Where's my little Trevor?" Soon the derelict is hugging and kissing the boy, and telling him all about his latest ills. Within minutes, Trevor has calmed him down and now is tending to his material as well as emotional needs, ladling him a bowl of stew, fitting him with a new blanket and used clothes.

While other 11-year-olds are doing their homework or watching TV, Trevor Ferrell and his parents, Frank and Janet, of Gladwyne, Pa., spend their evenings ministering to derelicts in the City of Brotherly Love. For dozens of hapless souls, the appearance of the Ferrells' van—marked by the bumper sticker "I Brake for Street People/Trevor Showed Me"—is a rift of light in the greater dark. It's a chance to chat, to eat warm food, occasionally to smoke whole cigars and cigarettes. Above all, it's a chance to be with Trevor, known in Philly's Lower Depths as "Shorty," "John Boy" and "Jesus." Says Albert Smith, "Trevor here has a large family." Adds a man called Johnny, "They came to our rescue when we needed them and have been here ever since."

Trevor Ferrell's "mission," as he calls it, began last December when he saw a TV-news segment on the city's homeless. "I couldn't believe that people lived that way," he says. "I knew there were some poor people, but I thought they were in India, not here." In many respects, Trevor is a garden variety 11-year-old: He plays Pac-Man, enjoys Diff'rent Strokes, would like to meet Ricky Schroder and Ronald Reagan. But he's also deeply religious and has thought about someday entering the ministry. Moved by the story of the homeless, Trevor talked his skeptical parents into driving him the 18 miles from their well-to-do Main Line suburb to the downtown area. Before leaving the five-bedroom ranch-style house, Trevor took a pillow from his bed and a seldom used blanket. The family drove around until they found a suitable beneficiary: a man "in white socks" who was camped on a subway grate in front of the Union League, one of the city's most exclusive clubs. "The man gave Trevor a smile and said, 'God bless you!' " remembers Janet Ferrell. "Trevor couldn't wait to do it again."

Two nights later Trevor and his dad hit the city once more, this time bearing one of Janet's old coats. A woman named Lois Jackson, who'd been on the skids for four months, eagerly accepted the coat, but declined Trevor's proffered $3. She would take gifts, it seemed, but could not be bought.

It wasn't long before Trevor made another discovery: He not only had a following among the street people, but his own personal favorites. For starters there was a guy he called Static. "I gave him the name because of his hair. It looks like he stuck his hand in a light socket." Then there was Greedy. "Greedy wants double everything," says Trevor with undisguised affection. And there was Scape, whom Trevor spotted sleeping under a ragged blanket in a dark alley. "It scared us a little," Frank Ferrell admits. "We had no idea what was under the blanket." Says Trevor, "I just walked up and touched him. I told him we had some hot food. He never says much, but every time we drive away, he salutes us." And finally Joe Repash, who once handed Trevor $10 in food stamps. "That's going to help you take care of the others when I'm gone," he said.

After exhausting his family's store of extra clothing, Trevor worked up a flyer and canvassed the community of Gladwyne. "One night we gave a man with white socks a blanket and a pillow," reads the flyer. "He was laying on a steam vent, and he said, 'God bless you.' We drove around and came back. He was still there, but he looked more comfortable. If you have any old blankets or gloves or warm warm coats or pillows, please call."

A suburban paper picked up the story, then a couple of local TV stations. That began a flood of donations. In what seemed a reprise of a Frank Capra film about the Great Depression, neighbors brought goods of every description to Frank Ferrell's small electronics shop in nearby Bala-Cynwyd. The Fort Dix Army training center in New Jersey sent 100 surplus heavy overcoats. Some people sent cash and checks, which enabled the Ferrells to improve and diversify their fare: Where once they mainly served coffee out of a Sesame Street thermos, they now could offer sandwiches and hot meals, which might include fried chicken, baked beans, soup and Jell-O. Where once they plied their ministry out of a Plymouth station wagon, they now could operate out of an anonymously donated Volkswagen van.

Withal, Trevor has become something of a celebrity. The Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution praising him as "an example of the good that lies within the human heart." Some 25 street people joined Trevor when the council feted him two weeks ago at a Holiday Inn. A few weeks before the shindig, the Welsh Valley Middle School had its own Trevor Ferrell Day and managed, in the process, to drum up seven cartons of food and eight bags of clothing for the Ferrell faithful. According to assistant principal Sybil Gilmar, "Trevor's sixth-grade classmates treat him with a great amount of respect. They realize that he's done something special." Indeed, the realization seems to be general throughout Philadelphia. Recently, a downtown church, responding to Trevor's plea for shelter for his motley flock, offered up a 30-room house in the inner city.

On the home front, Trevor's own house of worship got into the act. Last week the service of the Gladwyne Presbyterian Church was given over to his cause. In fact, two of the street people—Cornelius Dyson and Albert Smith—rose before some 200 of the affluent congregation and read Psalms. In his sermon the Rev. Howard E. Friend remarked that "Trevor is introducing us to people who walked where Jesus walked." Then Rev. Friend turned to the child and said, "Trevor, you've lifted up a people for us."

  • Contributors:
  • Andrea J. Fine.