The neighborhood boys walked by as Troy Harris cleaned the food truck in front of his house.

He knew a few of the teens who lived in and around the Wilson Park housing development by name. He knew all by face.

"Be careful, it's crazy out here," the Penn cook would often tell them, slipping them a couple of bucks so they could buy something at the gas station down the street, where they filled up cars for change.

That day, a few months ago, they were more interested in the truck. "You gonna give us a job?" they asked.

Harris stopped cleaning and looked up.

"This truck is for y'all," he said.

"I got y'all," he promised them. "I got y'all."

For five years, Harris has been working with Kareem Wallace, another cook at the university, to get the kosher vegan food truck on the road. Helpers have included a rotating group of Penn students just as passionate about the mission. They've named the truck Grassroots, just like the effort they hope will change some young people's lives.

The idea is to get at-risk teens off the streets by giving them work. Much like the job at Penn Hillel's Falk Dining Commons did for Harris while he watched friends die or go to jail.

There had been starts and stalls over the years as the group crowdfunded and poured money into the project.

And then, just as they were a few months away, a tragic irony hit home.

Harris' 17-year-old son was shot, hit five times and left indefinitely in a wheelchair.

Less than two months after his son was shot in February, I sat with Harris in his son's room at Magee Rehabilitation and talked about how the violence he was trying to save kids from had nearly cost his youngest his life.

Michelle Lyu, a Wharton junior, started a fund-raiser to help a beloved Penn cook with medical expenses after his son was shot in February. Here, she is pictured with Troy and Debra Harris and their 17-year-old son, Azir.
Helen Ubiñas
Michelle Lyu, a Wharton junior, started a fund-raiser to help a beloved Penn cook with medical expenses after his son was shot in February. Here, she is pictured with Troy and Debra Harris and their 17-year-old son, Azir.

The shooting put the food truck on hold as Harris and his wife managed a life that now included carrying their son in and out of the house, up and down the stairs as they waited for resources to help make their home more accessible.

But the truck, and everything it represented, beckoned.

And then a few weeks ago, one of the kids who had been in the crowd the day he was cleaning the food truck, biked past him as he got home from work. They talked a little. As usual, Harris told him to be careful, to get home.

Harris was barely in his front door when he heard the gunshots.

He screamed for his wife and children: "Is everybody in here?"

They were. But then came the news. The boy he'd just talked to was dead. He was 15.

Harris and his wife cried for the boy that night. They cried for all the young people in Philly who are meeting unnatural deaths. The teen was the 22nd person age 18 or younger to be killed in the city this year.

"I promised them jobs," Harris said when we met at the dining hall the other night. "I promised these guys. … That's what hurts."

He wonders: If the truck had been on the road, would there have been a chance that the  boy would have been working and not on the street that day?

Harris says there's no time left to wait. They are close, another $6,000 or so for licenses and permits and some last-minute odds and ends, and he thinks the truck will be ready to finally hit the road. (To donate, go to https://chuffed.org/project/grassroots-food-with-a-cause.) Even as they scramble to raise that money, they are working on partnerships that will go beyond the truck, to get young people interested in cooking and entrepreneurship, to get on that truck and off the block and realize how much more lies beyond their neighborhood.

"I can't sleep at night thinking about this," he said.

There are kids desperate for an opportunity out there. He sees many of them every day, walking past his house and asking.

"You gonna give us a job?"