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Here the two brothers visited a high school in Kensington.
Here the two brothers visited an elementary school in Kensington. Photo courtesy of Kerin and Javier Handal.

Kerin and Javier Handal, two brothers showing the future to youth from their neighborhoods

Javier is a 10+ year Philly firefighter and Kerin’s the Director of Multicultural Content Partnerships for Comcast. They give back with wisdom.

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These days, brothers Kerin and Javier Handal, are all about being role models in the same community they grew up in. 

Both grew up in a tough situation and made it out to become successful in their respective careers. Javier is a Philly firefighter with more than 10 years at the department, while Kerin is the current Director of Multicultural Content Partnerships for Comcast. 

Over the course of their lives and careers, they have given back to their community and make a difference by showing up for city youth in a way they never got to experience when they were young. The hope is to show students that they too can make it out of their respective tough neighborhoods and that there are multiple paths to do so once out of high school. 

The Handal brothers grew up in Kensington during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the city was amid the crack epidemic. As for how they managed, both pointed to their family as the pillar that kept them on the right path. Many of those they grew up with didn’t have that same support, and either ended up in jail or dead.

“There was a higher ratio of that happening than the ones like my brother and I who made it out in our careers or even made it to get a college degree. We were very fortunate. I would say we were financially poor, but family rich,” said Kerin. 

Financially poor, family rich

Born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Honduran father, the family settled on Lee Street, behind Episcopal Hospital between Cumberland and Huntington streets. It was a home, according to Javier, that was bought for a dollar because parts of the house were partially burned and construction was never completed. 

Despite the systematic neglect and surrounding drug trade, Javier said their dad, known as ‘Don Carlo’ on the block, showed his sons the way as the owner of his own construction company.  

“Going against the odds and trying to be someone successful was hard with that upbringing, because all you see is negative,” said Javier. “We saw his work ethic throughout his whole entire life. Just him being a strong hard worker was like we got to someday be able to do that for our family.”

Kerin also added that they were also lucky to avoid the violence at times before citing an incident that saw two of the Handal’s neighbors pull guns and start shooting at one another after a disagreement. In their reality at the time, it was commonplace.

“We definitely had a guardian angel with us. There were really scary situations, scary things that happened around us,” Kerin said. 

Javier also credits some of the horrors he witnessed growing as main factors contributing to his choice to become a firefighter. 

“Seeing all that was like: ‘We got to push to get out of here and to be better in life,’” Javier said. 

The brothers were also athletes growing up, so a level of respect was established to also keep them safe. Their family also garnered respect in the community by taking in Kerin and Javier’s friends for birthday parties and other celebrations that didn’t happen without that same family structure. Don Carlo would also go out of his way to make sure other neighborhood kids had what they needed during the winter months. 

It instilled in the brothers their own desire to give back to their community. As lifelong Philly residents, they also have unique perspectives as to what has changed in their communities, some for the worse, including gentrification that brought rising housing and tax costs.

Career journeys

The community they grew up in was “very diverse,” as Kerin said. 

“That helped us because we were exposed to all these different cultures. We were a family. We would go over and they would come over, and we were all the same. Our poverty was a unifier. We all had the same issues. Now if you look at some of those neighborhoods, they are different,” he continued.

Kerin attended a magnet middle school that had students from all different parts of the city and that continued in high school. It was there where college became an option, but admitted it was tough because there wasn’t anyone to help him through the college application process as the first one to go in his family. He got in and attended LaSalle University, where he worked 40-plus hours a week while also going to school full time. 

Out of college, he jumped into the corporate world and the rest is history. Today, he’s Comcast’s director of multicultural content partnerships.

“One of the biggest factors that differentiated me was that I was bilingual, and knowing Spanish helped me get my first job… But I didn't have a role model. I didn't have a mentor,” said Kerin.

Kerin went on to speak more about his current position at Comcast, where he is able to uplift and promote Latino content in the mainstream. He said it’s incredibly fulfilling, and has helped him realize the importance of diverse media for greater society as a whole.

“I find ways to improve the experience for the Latino community. I find ways to improve the experience for people like my mother who may prefer Spanish and those are the people who are often forgotten about when you're talking about a user experience,” said Kerin. “Having people like myself and some others on my team, we’re able to look at those experiences and look for ways to improve it. So it helps because I'm doing great things for the company, but I also do great things for our Latino and diverse communities.”

Javier’s experience was more like his father’s in the sense that he was more hands-on when it came to work. He initially worked as an EMT for four years before seeing a posting for a position at the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD).

“I knew that that was something that I wanted to do,” Javier said. 

When he initially joined the PFD, Javier was sent to South Philly, and said he was in a neighborhood where there weren't too many Latinos. Eventually, he was able to transfer back to North Philly where he said he wanted to be back home in his neighborhood serving the community where he grew up. 

Giving back, imparting wisdom

Separately, the two brothers do individual give backs of their own in their respective companies and workplaces, but they also come together for joint efforts on occasion.

The most recent was a visit to a high school in Kensington in hopes of relating to kids that also come from similar economic backgrounds and neighborhoods. The visit was also to show them there are multiple paths out of high school, even for those that have children while in high school and feel that dropping out is their only choice. 

“I always always praise college, but I also tell them that they should have a plan A, plan B, a Plan C, and always have a plan Z because life happens. I know that a lot of kids in those neighborhoods already have kids. What I tell them is that don't let a road bump stop you from being who you want to be,” said Javier. “If college isn't the thing, and you have to drop out because you had a kid, apply to the police department, become a steamfitter, there's other options, besides college.” 

He also always brings it back to how he can relate on a lived experience level in the neighborhood.

“What I touch on a lot is that I tell these kids that I grew up down the street from this high school. I live in this neighborhood. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed and to have peer pressure. I get on their level. I tell them, I'm no different from you. There's nothing that I did that you can't do. There's no superior to anybody here. We're all on the same level. So if I can do it, you 1,000% can,” he added. 

Kerin also spoke on the crime happening to youth in Philly and how the lack of resources, and safe spaces is at least in part, a reason for why it has gotten out of control.

“For me it’s giving kids the opportunity to do activities, while being safe. We didn't have that football field or that basketball court that didn't have broken glass on it. I think we need better and safer places for kids to do their activities, feel safe in their neighborhoods,” he said. “Have opportunities to learn and then go beyond what school is because, unfortunately, a lot of the things that our friends got in trouble with was, once they got out of school, they were bored and just got with the wrong crowd. Unfortunately, there's still those missing spaces, especially in North Philadelphia.” 

As for what drives these two brothers to continue their community work, it is family. Kerin, who is a father, wants to better the community for his children’s generations. 

It is the same thing for Javier who is also looking to get promoted and become a lieutenant at the fire department, and continue to serve. 

Javier is no longer in North Philly after being promoted to a special unit in Grays Ferry in South Philly where he is the only Latino in the unit. It is a special unit also hired by FEMA that covers half of the city and are deployed anytime a natural disaster or a terrorist attack were to happen. He wants to continue to inspire young Latino men to become firemen as the percentage of Latino firefighters when he first entered was around 1% to 2% and now sits in between 10% and 15%. 

Kerin is also an active volunteer in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a board member of Photography Without Borders (Philadelphia based nonprofit that empowers young students through photography), and former Lead of Unidos at Comcast in Philadelphia. 

As their careers continue to blossom, they’ll be sure to give a lot of it back to the communities that raised them.

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