February 26th 2014
'I KNOW that guy," Vincent Thomas screeched as Charles Tillman appeared on the 60-inch television he and dorm mates at Eastern University had gathered around on Super Bowl weekend.
"Sure you do," was the predictable response. Thomas grew up in Camden. Tillman, honored that weekend as the NFL's Man of the Year, has played his entire 11-year career as a cornerback with the Chicago Bears and before that, lived just about everywhere else in the world but Camden as the son of a military man.
But Thomas didn't just know him. It is largely because of Tillman that Thomas became the first in his family to attend college. As involved sponsors of Camden's acclaimed UrbanPromise program, Tillman and his wife Jackie are covering whatever remains of Thomas' education costs after grants and scholarships, and are taking an active role in the junior's pursuit of a degree in business marketing.
"First semester was rough for him, but he's been awesome since," Tillman said proudly.
Long before their infant daughter Tiana's life was saved by a donated heart in 2008, the Tillmans were dedicated philanthropists. Since 2005, their charitable efforts have impacted the lives of more than 1 million Chicago-area children, many of them chronically ill.
In 2007, Jackie was flipping channels one night and landed on a "20/20" report on the dire plight of the underfunded, crime-torn city of Camden and UrbanPromise's early attempts to provide outlets and hope for the cildren victimized by that condition.
"I was floored by it," Jackie said. "And the next day, I called them and asked how we could help."
Organized originally in 1988 by college missionaries as a safe summer camp for Camden's kids, UrbanPromise now operates from a budget of $3.6 million and employs more than 55 full-time employees. With 100 young adults on its payroll each year, it is the largest private employer of teens in the city.
One of those teens before going off to Eastern, Vincent Thomas has been involved in UrbanPromise since attending camp in third grade. He was one of the first kids the Tillmans met when they visited for the first time and has been sponsored by them since his freshman year in high school. Already thinking past his anticipated graduation from Eastern, he dreams of starting his own business, utilizing computer graphics.
"I remember the first letter he wrote to us,"Jackie said. "I don't want to say 'angry,' but reading the letter, he sounded guarded. To see the man he has become now - he's come a long way. We're very proud."
In the years since their initial involvement, the Tillmans have been in and out of Camden, touring the city, meeting the kids whose lives they've aided. Sometimes it's just to talk or walk with them, but there have been trips to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, and a big group went to this year's Eagles-Bears game, too. Injured for the second half of last season, Tillman was not required to accompany the team to that late-December Sunday night game, but he and his wife flew out anyway.
"They've met my father and mother personally," Thomas said. "They get involved in what we're doing. We build boats. They were amazed that inner-city kids were able to do those kind of things. He's as interested in us as we are of him."
Of course, even the free stuff the Tillmans habitually supply often have an ulterior purpose.
"I wanted them to go somewhere where there's a salad fork or a bread knife," Tillman said of the trip to Ruth's Chris. "Because when they go somewhere, the first thing people do is judge a book by its cover: 'Oh, these Camden kids, they ain't nothing. They don't know how to act.'
" 'Well, actually I have, I've been to plenty of places. This is my salad fork. This is my bread knife.'
"This is how it is when you go to balls and galas. Even the smaller things can help them go a long, long way."
It's the guiding premise of the Tillman's philanthropy, whether it's providing chronically and critically ill children with access to iPads, laptops, game systems and such - the crux of their hospital involvement - or beaming a light toward a world more promising than present-day Camden can provide.
"We get to rap with the kids," Charles Tillman said. "Hear all about what's going on in their lives. Their struggles. Their goals, their dreams. The same dreams I had when I was a kid. The only difference is that they live in Camden.
"The biggest goal my wife and I have, what we want to achieve is, 'You can go do something. You can be better, you can go out, learn, grow, come back and you can teach.' Never be ashamed of where you are from. But at the same time, you don't have to be a product of what goes on in Camden. It's not going to get better until you change it. You know what it's like. I don't. I'm just trying to help out."
By Sam Donnellon, Philadelphia Daily News