Arts & Entertainment

Room for change

A neighborhood home acts as a candy store and learning center.

Khalid Muhammad doesn’t let any children into his house with their shoes untied.

Muhammad and his wife Nandi has been living in the house for more than 15 years, serving the community in an unconventional way.

The couple’s living room doubles as a penny candy shop, accessible to all children in the neighborhood. A pale blue flag flies over the house at 12th and Cumberland Streets when the operation is open for business.

Former “penny candy kid” Fred Harris, 24, recalled some of his moments in the home of the Muhammads—like Khalid Muhammad’s constant reminder to “keep ‘em tied,” he said.

“You can’t retreat or advance without them being tied,” Harris said, repeating Khalid Muhammad’s words.

One word, stitched in black, fills the flag: willpower.

“If you have it, nobody can tell you what you can do or accomplish,” Nandi Muhammad said.

The candy shop also doubles as a learning environment and a safe space for the kids who enter. The children are taught how to make change and manage money, how to respectfully interact with adults and about Black history.

“Using candy was a way of getting the attention of the children,” Nandi Muhammad said. “Once you get their attention, then you can teach them something.”

The Muhammads took over the program from their neighbor, Frances “Billie” Hutchinson, after she fell ill and was admitted to the hospital.

Hutchinson turned to the couple to take care of her and the shop while she was recovering. When Hutchinson’s family took over her medical care, the store was left in the hands of the Muhammads.

Nandi Muhammad said she still remembers Hutchinson’s request: “Would you stick and stay?”

The Muhammads decided they would.

“[Because] adults had places and stores, [but] there wasn’t a place for kids,” Nandi Muhammad said.

Aside from initial visits with their children, adults are not allowed in the house. Nandi Muhammad said adults are more likely to bring weapons or other hazards into the home, compromising everyone’s safety.

Instead, the house’s environment should be about trust and respect, the Muhammads said.

“Just because they’re children doesn’t mean we should be disrespectful,” Nandi Muhammad said. “If they get the respect of an adult at a young age, they’ll return it when they get older.”

Children learn the value of respect when they step into the candy shop, starting with the simple fact that they’re free to shop. According to Nandi Muhammad, kids “know they won’t be cheated” out of their money.

“They learn the value of a dollar,” she added. “It’s more than a piece of paper.”

The Muhammads mean this in a very literal way. Kids are taught the breakdown of a dollar into coins, and how to figure out exact change.

But the shop is not exactly a retail, for-profit store, Nandi Muhammad said.

“It’s just something that we do out of our home,” she said.

In fact, Muhammad initially preferred to call it the “kids’ community house,” but “Penny Candy Store” stuck instead.

The living room, covered in images of historical black figures like Cecil B. Moore and Martin Luther King Jr., also serves as an informal history class. When kids ask about specific pictures, they’re taught about the person’s accomplishments, and how they intersect with their own background.

“Kids come with curiosity, and there’s no need to deter that,” Nandi said.

Former “penny candy kid” Fred Harris, now 24, recalled some of his moments in the home of the Muhammads—like Khalid Muhammad’s constant reminder to “keep ‘em tied,” he said.

As a general rule, kids were not allowed to enter the house with their shoes untied.

“You can’t retreat or advance without them being tied,” Harris said, repeating Khalid Muhammad’s words.

Harris said the house was a staple in the community during his younger years, and he visited at least three times a day.

“It helped provide a positive mindset for kids,” Harris added. “Their stories on how they overcame problems helped us learn from our own problems.”

Harris recalled the story of how the couple bought their current house when it was abandoned, fixing it up with their own hands.

“They led by example,” he said.

A reunion was recently held for former penny candy kids, and the event allowed Muhammad to witness some of the impacts that she and her husband, both retired, made on the lives of the kids.

“To know that they’ve grown up and advanced in life is most-rewarding,” she said. “They don’t have to be the CEO of a large corporation. The main thing is that they grew up and survived.”

She noted that some kids ended up behind bars, on drugs, or in jail, and realized that she simply can’t help everyone. Despite this, she still holds pride in her heart.

“When you see people make it out, you know you’ve done something right.”

Paula Davis can be reached at paula.davis@temple.edu.

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