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Hometown Hero
Through the philanthropic foundation that bears his name, Jon Bon Jovi finds a permanent home in Philadelphia

by Bill Donahue

During the hard-rock/glam-metal heyday of the 1980s, a countless number of teenage girls throughout the United States swooned over Jon Bon Jovi. Through the infectious, hard-driving anthems his eponymous band gave the world—“You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Runaway,” “Livin’ on a Prayer”—Bon Jovi helped many fans through life’s rough patches and, some might suggest, even gave them a reason to go on.

Kevin Weldon might say the same of the Sayreville, N.J.-born rock star, though in a much more literal sense.

Weldon spent the 20 years prior to 2012 living on the street, mostly in a stretch of Pennypack Park straddling the border between Northeast Philadelphia and the suburbs. Today he’s off the street and working toward a “normal life”—thanks in large part to an organization that bears a familiar name: the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.

The nonprofit, formerly known as the Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation, was created in 2006 to help those in need, as foundation officials say, “one soul at a time.” The foundation grew out of a business partnership between Bon Jovi and Philadelphia real estate magnate Craig A. Spencer, who teamed to bring an Arena Football League franchise—the Philadelphia Soul—to the city. (In 2008, the team also brought an ArenaBowl championship to the city.) Although Bon Jovi has since sold off his share of the team, he remains deeply committed to the foundation and its mission.

“After we launched the [Soul] in 2004, we were focused on a new model for sport franchise ownership,” says Bon Jovi, chairman of the foundation’s board. “From the very beginning, the goal was to utilize the team, which is defined as not just players but also our staff, management and ultimately the fans, as an agent for good.

“Although the foundation and the team are no longer directly related,” he continues, “Philadelphia will always be our home.”

The foundation’s tendrils have touched many causes and the lives of innumerable Philadelphians, providing funds, support and other services to local organizations and individuals in need of help. Revitalizing neighborhoods and building bonds among neighbors has been a specific focus; last year, for example, the foundation joined Rebuilding Together Philadelphia’s “Building a Healthy Neighborhood” project for the city’s Overbrook neighborhood, in which hundreds of volunteers worked together to rehabilitate nearly 30 homes. Other local organizations helped by Bon Jovi and his foundation include the Corporate Alliance for Drug Education, The Philadelphia Children’s Alliance and the Delaware Valley Adoption Center, among many others.

A particularly notable beneficiary of the foundation’s support is Project H.O.M.E., the Philadelphia-based nonprofit devoted to ending homelessness in Philadelphia. In November of last year, Project H.O.M.E. celebrated a groundbreaking for JBJ Soul Homes, a $20-million mixed-use development including retail, offices and 55 apartment units for formerly homeless and low-income adults and children.

The community is expected to open its doors in November, when JBJ Soul Homes’ residents will benefit from all Project H.O.M.E. services. These include basic medical care and fitness classes through its Health Initiative Program, employment training through its Employment Services Department, education access through its Honickman Learning Center and computer use through its Comcast Technology Labs.

The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation previously made a large contribution in the name of Bon Jovi’s parents—both veterans of the Marine Corps—through Project H.O.M.E. to St. Elizabeth’s Recovery Residence, which has since created a Veterans Program to help homeless veterans find their way toward gainful employment and permanent homes. Among those who have been lent a hand by the program is the formerly homeless Kevin Weldon, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

In October of last year, after he found Project H.O.M.E., Weldon entered the PECO Veterans Employment Training Program. The program placed him as an intern with MANNA (short for Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance), where he has flourished and has since been hired as a part-time packer.

Although he believes he still has far to go, taking steps to “finally being responsible again” has put him on a path toward a much better life. Weldon says he recalls times, prior to coming in off the street, when he thought of “walking off the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.” Instead he’s preparing to reconnect with his daughter and meet his four grandchildren in Texas this summer.

“The struggle of hunger and homelessness is one of our country’s biggest challenges,” Bon Jovi says. “We believe in ‘we,’ meaning both you and I will make a difference, and we don’t need a scientist to find the cure. There are many here in Philly and the surrounding area who are committed to ending homelessness and eliminating hunger. [Our foundation] is just one vessel hoping to spread the word and the wealth.”

The Smartest Man in the Boardroom
Bon Jovi—the man, not the band—is anything but a name on the masthead; he and his longtime wife, Dorothea, remain actively involved in growing the foundation in its quest to bring about positive change in the world. Spencer, the Soul’s owner who co-founded the nonprofit with Bon Jovi and who currently serves as its vice chairman, says the foundation has thrived in large part because of Bon Jovi’s business sense and unrelenting devotion to the cause.

“Jon is my partner, but he is absolutely our leader,” says Spencer, the foundation’s vice chairman who also serves as president and CEO of The Arden Group, a Philadelphia-based real estate firm. “I don’t see him as a worldwide rock star; I see him as an incredibly smart businessman who happens to be in the music business.

“When I’m at a [Bon Jovi] show and watching him perform, I do say, ‘Whoa,’ and you understand who he is really quickly,” he continues. “But the minute you leave the show and you’re sitting there having a drink or walking around with him, you get to see the other side of him. I would put him in a board room with anybody, because he’s a smart guy who gets it, and he works as hard as anyone you’ve seen.”

Since its inception, the foundation has expanded in both size and scope. In addition to housing in Philadelphia and surrounding areas, it has also undertaken affordable housing initiatives in Brooklyn and Detroit, as well as parts of Colorado and Louisiana, and even as far as South Africa. In addition, it has grown to offer other interconnected services, such as education and sustenance, designed to help those in need become whole again. The JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J., for example, serves healthy, delicious and, when possible, organic meals to customers who have earned them through minimal donations or volunteer hours.

“You see these homes that we have helped renovate or build, and it’s very gratifying,” says Spencer. “Or you see a family who had been in a shelter the night before and they couldn’t afford to pay for a meal anywhere else, and then they walk into the Soul Kitchen; for them, it’s like eating dignity. Every step of the way it becomes more amazing.

“Our growth has been very organic,” he continues. “I think the foundation could be significantly larger, but the concern there is it could get away from us. It’s not just about generating money and putting money out; it’s about making the projects we do successful, getting people off the street, and giving them a chance at the life we live every day.”

Because it is closely managed by an engaged board and actively supported by an army of volunteers, the foundation is flexible enough to contribute to causes during particular times of need, such as in the aftermath of natural disasters. With Hurricane Sandy having decimated large swaths of Bon Jovi’s home state, destroying many of the places where he first earned his fame and displacing many of the people he might call “neighbor,” hurricane relief has been something akin to a pet project for the affable rock star.

“Life-changing tragedies like Hurricane Sandy show us that when we focus and we put aside all our differences, we can come together as one,” Bon Jovi says. “People across the nation, and certainly in Philadelphia, have proven time and again that by working together we can make a brighter future for our people, our communities, our city and beyond.”

Although the foundation does take up a significant chunk of his time and energy, Bon Jovi continues to tour the world, which he is currently doing in support of his band’s latest album, “What About Now,” which debuted in early March. The band was touring overseas at press time, though Bon Jovi and his bandmates return to the United States this summer. As of now, no shows are planned for the Philadelphia area, though the band is scheduled to play two shows in East Rutherford, N.J., this July.

Bon Jovi’s contributions to the entertainment industry will likely lead to his enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet for people such as Weldon—the Air Force veteran who has begun rebuilding his life after wandering Pennypack Park for so long—Bon Jovi’s greatest contributions have been less about the music and more about his altruism, about the legacy of philanthropy he will one day leave behind.

“This experience has turned my whole life around,” Weldon admits. “Before this, I figured they’d find me dead in the park someday. For what they’ve done for me, they’ve literally saved my life.”

Suburban Life Magazine