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Homeless cartoonist graduates to place in Philly schools as One Step Away's 'Lil Addict' helps kids battle addiction

02/01/2011 12:00:21 PM
Contact: Kevin Roberts, RHD Communications
kevinr@rhd.org; 215-951-0327, ext. 3714

Robert Hayes and his “Lil Addict” cartoon have been a fixture on the pages of One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper produced by the homeless. Now “Lil Addict” is going to school – graduating to a place within the Philadelphia School District.
Parent University, a Philadelphia district initiative offering free day and evening classes to parents in a wide variety of subjects from math and science to parenting and other life skills, is partnering with “Lil Addict” to provide a resource to engage parents and their children on addiction and recovery.

“We want to encourage parents reading with their children, and talking to their children about staying away from drugs,’’ said Karen James, director of call center and operations for the school district of Philadelphia. “We’d ultimately like to have a book club discussion, of the issues the character went through, the challenges he faced, and how he overcame them.

“We want to teach children that life is not always a bowl of cherries. There are obstacles, and you have to fight through them. Robert is someone who had been there, and has gone through it, and knows what he’s talking about. We’re happy to support him in his effort, because he’s using his situation to better himself. And he has talent.”

One Step Away is Philadelphia’s first street newspaper, and the only street paper in the country in which most of the content is produced by the homeless men, women and children in the city shelters. Hayes, a resident at RHD Ridge Center, began contributing his “Lil Addict” cartoons shortly after One Step Away debuted in January, 2010.

“Lil Addict” tells the story of addiction, temptation and recovery in ways that are sometimes whimsical and sometimes serious, but always thought-provoking. In many ways, it is Robert’s story.

Robert, like many men at Ridge, was taking advantage of the workshops at Parent University and showing off his cartoons as they appeared in One Step Away. Several instructors saw and liked the comic. As Robert began talking about putting a book together, James and Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the school district of Philadelphia, agreed to purchase a “Lil Addict” comic book and make it available in the resource center for Parent University.

“I’ve always wanted to use the comic to raise awareness with young people,’’ Robert said. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity with the school district of Philadelphia.”

The only change to Robert’s work is the title. The School District will call the book “Tales of Recovery.” The cartoon will still run in One Step Away as “Lil Addict.”

Robert has recently found full-time employment and is set to leave the shelter soon. But he’ll keep drawing “Lil Addict,” and continue to appear in the pages of One Step Away. Robert credited Alan Bell, the artist-in-residence at the Ridge Center, with helping him turn a hobby into something much more.

“I first started drawing ‘Lil Addict’ as an outlet when people in the facility would irritate me,’’ Robert said, with a laugh. “Alan Bell really helped me develop it, and soon I started thinking that it could be a helpful tool for people in recovery.

“When One Step Away started publishing the cartoon, it motivated me to do more. I had a sense of pride, and I felt like I had accomplished something. The first time I saw it in the newspaper, that’s when I really knew that I could do something I wanted to do.”