Amanda's Story

Director Amanda Danziger shares her story behind The Backyard Philly Project.

But everyday I looked out that window onto my backyard, toward North Philadelphia, and I felt Philadelphia calling my name.
Photo by Nienke Izurieta

Photo by Nienke Izurieta

I met Adam Bruckner at a local café in Philadelphia. I was excited to meet him because he said he worked a lot in the world of “American Poverty.” American—-what? Poverty? Yeah, I know that some people in America are poor – but how poor can they be compared to what I’ve seen in third world countries? It’s amazing how blind we can be to our own communities. Since 2007, I’ve been walking the streets of Philadelphia and have learned to ignore the world of Philadelphia’s homeless. It’s easy to ignore, and soon you become blind to the world of poverty in your own backyard.

My husband, Ariel, is my biggest support. After we got married in 2011, I took a small break from the world of documentary making. But after a while I started to feel that I needed to build a new project for Ferasha Films. He encouraged me to think outside the box and find a new story to film. I thought about leaving the country again, but it just didn’t seem right. We lived on the 20th floor in a small studio apartment for our first year of marriage. What a view! It was a place of inspiration, even though we lived in such a small space. But everyday I looked out that window onto my backyard, toward North Philadelphia, and I felt Philadelphia calling my name. That’s when I decided to organize a crew for Ferasha Films to work on our first feature documentary in our own backyard.

Adam told me a lot about how he works with the homeless at a program he started called Philly Restart. But what really struck me was his time and dedication to a housing project near the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Adam organized an after school program at The Helping Hand Rescue Mission (the Mission) for the children in the community. The after school program’s mission is twofold: to tutor elementary school students in their schoolwork, and to challenge the older teens of the neighborhood to take action and tutor those same students.

My first day visiting the Mission made my pulse race with fear. That’s when I asked Nienke Izurieta (Director of Still Photography) to come with me. The first time we went, the palms of my hands were sweating as Adam gave us a walking tour around the neighborhood. Growing up as a middle class suburban girl and moving into the big mean scary city you hear stories about “the projects.” As we walked with Adam I kept thinking ‘what on earth am I doing? I’m going to get shot.’ I was extremely relieved when we concluded our walking tour and we sat in the Mission waiting for the tutoring program to begin. And that’s when I fell in love with the faces of the neighborhood.

From then on I went every Tuesday and volunteered at the Mission with Nienke, even before production officially began. Eventually the teens in our documentary started to notice that we were showing up to tutor. What they didn’t know was those new tutors were soon to invite them to participate in the making of The Backyard Philly Project.

I’m very excited to premiere the documentary this May 10th and 11th. I really hope that you are too. I hope that when you do watch this film (at the premiere, a screening, film festival, buying the DVD) that you are inspired to work within your own community. The issues our documentary highlights cannot be fixed with money. The problems we filmed require personal commitment and volunteering. It is only by facing the problems and investing time in our backyards that we can successfully defeat the problems we attempted to document. Please connect with your community today.

-The Backyard Philly Project will premiere this May 10th and 11th at the Drexel University URBN Center Annex-

-For tickets and info, visit

David's Story

David Cole is one of the four teens of “The Backyard Philly Project.” He was kind enough to share what the making of this film has meant to him. These are his words, completely unedited. We are blessed to know David and to have worked with him and to know his story.

Photo by Nienke Izurieta

Photo by Nienke Izurieta

Photo by David Cole

Photo by David Cole

Even though we had a limited amount of time to work together every moment meant something.

Working with Amanda and the Ferasha Films crew has been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much about the process of filmmaking and photography. It takes a lot of work and patience to have good work. During the time I had the Flip camera I had time to work one on one with one of the crew members Nienke, she’s just the best. Even though we had a limited amount of time to work together every moment meant something. At first I was skeptical about even working with Amanda and Nienke, I knew how good my work was but at the same time I was working with professionals who had a different eye than I did. Surprisingly the outcome came out pretty good, and they were very impressed with my work.

I always get asked the question “why are you in the movie?” and I use to just answer “I don’t know.” But really it’s because I want too, I have a story to tell just like everyone else only difference that mines is documented. When we would record throughout the neighborhood we would get look from people and things were said also. It was best to just ignore them, why? Because you didn’t want to stoop to their level and because you didn’t want to mess up the shot. It’s a lot of editing involved so less mistakes would be best.

I got a lot out of this too, since I been more active with my photography people have been asking me to be their photographer, do their weddings so many opportunities have opened for me thanks to the Ferasha Films group. I’m so grateful for everything that they have done for me. So many doors opened and are still opening for me. I don’t know where I would be now without all of the help that I have got from them. My story isn’t over.


Adam's Story

Adam Bruckner, Youth Director at the Helping Hand Rescue Mission and Director of Philly Restart, shares with us some questions and answers on issues of homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia.


Photo taken by Nienke Izurieta

Photo taken by Nienke Izurieta

I don’t make bold proclamations about ending homelessness in Philadelphia. We just try to help where we can. If there were a simple solution, someone else would have found it already.

Q: Why don’t the homeless guys just move to Florida where it’s warm? 

A: People who grew up here want to live here. Family and friends and being familiar with a city.  And it’s a long walk.

Q: Why doesn’t that bum just walk into McDonald’s and get a job? 

A: You can’t walk into McDonald’s and get a job unless you have an ID, phone number, and address. And you need ID to get ID.  And money.

Q: Aren’t all homeless guys addicts and Vietnam Veterans? 

A: Some are, but not nearly as many as I thought years ago.

Q: Why don’t they just go to a shelter instead of sleeping on a vent?   

A:Sometimes the shelters are full. And some find shelters dangerous, restrictive, and uncomfortable. Some of our best guys have stayed outside to avoid bad influences and drama that comes with a building full of others who are struggling.

Q: Did you hear the story about the homeless guy who was begging for change all day and then went and got into his Mercedes?

A:Yes, it was a great story.

The question I probably get asked the most is, “what is the main reason someone is homeless?” I used to think that it was mental illness and substance abuse alone; and those play a significant role. But I have found that the main reason that someone is homeless in Philadelphia is family stuff. Many in Philadelphia are homeless, not helpless. And there was no safety net to catch them when they lost their job, relapsed, got out of prison, forgot to take their meds, lost their housing, etc.  I have friends in my hometown that have some of the same problems, but their parents were able to bail them out.

So for the last eleven years, we have lumped together an odd family of our own at 18th and Vine Street, at 4 p.m. We call it Philly Restart, and we are a non-profit through the Helping Hand Rescue Mission; but it is far more than a free meal and practical assistance. For many, we are the most consistent things in their inconsistent lives. For some, we are the family that they do not have. 

I don’t make bold proclamations about ending homelessness in Philadelphia.   We just try to help where we can. If there were a simple solution, someone else would have found it already.

We have found that it is pretty easy to help someone in a small way, but really difficult to make a lasting impression with an adult who has fallen away. And so we find ourselves working in intervention in the homeless, and have expanded into prevention with some children in North Philly.

The Helping Hand Rescue Mission has been operating since 1905, assisting the poor and needy in Philadelphia. For many years, the focus has been on those on the streets and in shelters. In 2006, we started to work with children living in poverty, and our hope is that this will be a generation of change, as many of the men and women who stand in our meal lines on Mondays grew up in the same circumstances our children live in today.

Just as there is not a simple way to end homelessness, there is not a simple way to prevent it. Our hope is to offer the children in our program every advantage possible. We run after school tutoring, kids’ club, a soccer academy, and camps. We hire local teenagers (our junior leaders) to team with our volunteers to run our programs. And we just try to have fun.

We encourage our young people to love God, love their neighbors, and to love their neighborhoods. We show them that there is a good path available, and we try to walk it with them. We focus on educational, spiritual, and personal aspects of their lives, and then just try to help them to be good kids. Simply, we hope that good kids become good adults.

We don’t have answers for all of the tough questions. We don’t have simple solutions. Sometimes all we can do is all we can do. We can’t fix the problems of a major city, but we know that we can help.  

If it weren’t for Adam, “The Backyard Philly Project” wouldn’t exist.


Timeless nights - A found "Backyard Philly Project" memory

Director of Communications, Brendan Schaller, shares a memory of filming “The Backyard Philly Project.”

We all understood that this story was bigger than us.
Outside in the cold working on a video.

Outside in the cold working on a video.

“The Backyard Philly Project” underwent production from October 2011 to June 2012. Because of our five separate schedules and residences in different places, we often made plans to meet up in the city for at least one full day a month. We would conduct interviews with our teens, shoot b-roll footage around the neighborhood and the city, and have our own little staff meetings to plan and brainstorm.

One memory that sticks out for me was an earlier meeting, which I think was last November. We had launched our Indiegogo campaign to raise money for production costs of our film, and we wanted to make a short video featuring our team, so that we could personally reach out to our supporters to help us tell this story. At the time, Amanda was the only one who lived in Philadelphia, so Bruce, Nienke, and I drove from the Lehigh Valley. After a day of filming, we tried to make this video in Amanda’s apartment. We were writing down what we would say and how we would explain our project to the viewers.

As we were drafting, we began to ask ourselves some deeper questions about our film. Like most documentaries, the overall purpose and point don’t seem to be revealed until you’ve already begun making it. This was beginning to happen for us.

We started asking each other and ourselves what our story was about. Who are we helping and who are we trying to reach? How is this film going to change anything and why is it important? We started digging deeper and finding answers for these questions. We wrote and rewrote our statements. We made a lot of tea as it got darker and later.

Bruce and I needed to be back in the valley that night, because we had work in the morning. Nienke had to go just to wake up and drive back to Philly the next day. At the time, I was commuting to Philly three days a week and working another job in Allentown. I rarely slept enough, and spent way too many hours on the PA turnpike. But these questions needed to be answered and we needed to figure out where we were going before we started running there. We had already begun filming and investing time and money into our project, so before we could ask others to do so, we had to know what it was going to be about.

We stayed in Amanda’s studio apartment until after midnight that night. We got home around 2 a.m. We later realized that the audio of that video didn’t record properly, which was extremely frustrating. But the next week, we met up in Bethlehem to record it with all five of us. I was commuting that day, which involved leaving Allentown at 6:30 a.m. to work in Philly and then got back to Bethlehem at 7 p.m., just to spend the next three hours filming our message.

What these late nights and commutes taught me about our team and our project was that we had all made a commitment to making something. We all understood that this story was bigger than us. And though our nights were sometimes long and frustrating, we always had a good time doing it. We hope the hard work and enjoyment we put into making “The Backyard Philly Project” shines through. I think no matter what, the five of us are proud of it.

-Brendan Schaller 

The view from a social care worker

Volunteer Lauren Carroll tells us how she and a group of others have been improving the space at Helping Hand Rescue Mission over the past year.

The room before. (Photo provided by Lauren Carroll).

The room before. (Photo provided by Lauren Carroll).

The room after. (Photo provided by Lauren Carroll)

The room after. (Photo provided by Lauren Carroll)

With that understanding, I view the Mission as authentic and a place that values the people of the community by serving children.

My involvement with the Mission began last Christmas of 2011, when I came to volunteer with the after-school tutoring program. The premise of this organization was compelling and something to which I was drawn—the unconditional love to serve others. For children in the inner city, the after school hours pose as a dangerous time; a period when they are “at risk” for getting into serious trouble. The Mission provides them with a safe and positive alternative. Even though I am fairly new to Philadelphia, my family has had a long-standing history of missions in this city and my heart is dedicated to serve the people here. With that understanding, I view the Mission as authentic and a place that values the people of the community by serving children. Amidst the plethora of activities this organization leads, the after-school tutoring program has been a significant resource for the neighborhood children.

The Mission reminded me of an organization that deeply impacted my youth, World Changers. As a teen, I was not without struggles and World Changers provided an opportunity to help others as well as meet the real needs of people and demonstrate God’s love. The trips serve populations in larger cities throughout the country and they perform construction on homes or buildings within that area. With the permission of Adam Bruckner, World Changers was invited to serve at the Mission in July of 2012 and begin a yearly partnership to assist with structural aspects of the building. Starting this past summer, a group of teenagers and adults devoted a week of their summer to come and serve at the Mission in Philadelphia. One of the girls, Tiffany, was able to come because one of the families had financially supported her. Tiffany shared the troubles of her own family and how blessed she was to be part of the mission trip. She also related that she had never left the state of Virginia and was extremely overwhelmed when the mission van drove through the city. At the end of the week, she said, “Miss Lauren, this is the greatest thing I have ever done. I just want these people to know we really care about them.”

Throughout the week, we had a group of volunteers to install fencing for the façade of the building, a cleaning crew for the upstairs, and another group that started to repair some dry wall at the lower level of the building. My purpose was to lead a crew that began cleaning a specific room on the second floor of the building. When I first walked into this room, it was like a treasure chest, but terrifying at the same time, kind of like those clowns that jump out of the box. Over the course of the week, the crew unpacked boxes, organized materials, and discarded several items. Although we didn’t completely finish our tasks at hand, we did see a light at the end of the tunnel. This space was absolutely incredible and could be used to benefit so many activities filled with purpose. The crew was able to see victory and discussed possibilities for the room, such as a starting a program involving visual arts, ceramics, digital photography, dance/yoga, drama, film production, graphic design and music. All of these activities could bolster a child’s ability to express his/herself both creatively and verbally. In addition, children and teens are often critiqued in every aspect of their life, while this would provide a program that would be non-judgmental.

I, as a social worker for foster care in this area, realize that children often endure an astonishing amount of traumatic events in a short period of time. The Mission does not seem to create events and programs in isolation. Instead, it can be noted that the events produce long-term impact by being relational and accessible. Thus, the impact of the programs for children in this area might supply them with the only resources they have to be able to succeed.

-Lauren Carroll, volunteer at Helping Hand Rescue Mission