The image of a rising star...

This Thursday, Tess Donie receives the “Rising Star Award” from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. I photographed her for her application last fall on a quiet side street a few blocks from her Kensington office.

Community Development Corporations, or CDCs, are nonprofit organizations that connect government dollars to important work in local communities. Tess came to Philadelphia to pursue medical school, but was drawn to community development after seeing the power of residents’ place-based work in West Philadelphia.

Now Tess is Associate Director of Community Engagement at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), where she oversees its Community Connectors program, supports the work of a local civic association—Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL)—and leads the organization’s trauma-informed approach to community development. 

Donie serves the Kensington community with sincerity, love and drive. ”It is my job to work with residents, empower them to realize their own vision as a community, and help them make it a reality,“ she says.

”I am a firm believer that this community in Kensington has given so much more to me than I could ever give to it in my lifetime. Without our community members’ support, and the leap of faith they have taken to welcome me into their homes and challenge me each day, none of my work would be possible.“

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Letters from a life lost

 Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Four years ago, after a dear friend died of cancer, I combed through letters she had written to me two decades earlier, when we were in college and sometimes dating and both of us were trying to figure out how to become adults. I chose about 20 letters—some typed, some illustrated on colored paper, some with beads or feathers—that I thought captured her young personality without being uncomfortably personal.

Catherine was an actor. She died less than a year after completing her MFA from the University of South Carolina. She was also a New Yorker, having left her native Indiana in 1998 to become a building superintendent, school administrator, baker and a good many other things in NYC. Most of all, she was a gentle soul. She noticed small things—the curl of a leaf, the expression on a squirrel—and seemed to speak for all creatures as they would want to be represented.

Catherine didn't want to be treated differently because she was dying, and so she told few people she had cancer. Most of her USC classmates didn't know. She also guarded her legacy, destroying garbage bags of personal detritus in the last weeks of her life. And her desire to live was almost delusional—she insisted up until days before her death that the end was not yet near. Many of her friends didn't get a chance to see her before was gone.

I wanted to send a package of letters to her best friend (fittingly living in St. Catharines, Ontario). But before I stuck it in the mail, I thought I should scan everything, just in case.

It turned out to be unnecessary. The letters arrived in St. Catharines, were hungrily read, and came back. The box sat on my desk, unopened, for weeks.

Then a strange thing happened: they disappeared. They left on the same night my old wedding ring slipped its chain on my bureau. My housemate had a drug relapse and robbed his own home, taking a stereo, jewelry, laptop, bicycle—and apparently, for some reason, Catherine's letters.

It took a couple weeks for police to arrest the culprit (eventually they got video footage of his using my credit card at an ATM and in a taxi) and in that time I initiated a couple awkward conversations with him about the value of what I had lost, without ever indicating I knew who might have taken it. He never tipped his hand.

Insurance covered the wedding band and Discover refunded the credit card charges, but the letters never resurfaced. Eventually, I decided that Catherine herself might have inspired the theft to stamp out one last record of her adolescence.

She apparently didn't know about the digital files. 

 Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

 Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to  A Farewell to Arms  enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.

Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to A Farewell to Arms enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.