Without having the opportunity to enroll at the Glen Mills Schools, Tony Downing says, “I would have been dead by 17." Instead, the passionate Bull For Life has lived a happy and healthy life.
When he arrived on the Glen Mills campus as a self-described aggressive, high energy 15-year old in May of 1977, Downing had a chance to catch his breath, slow down, and take a much needed and life-altering respite from the gang riddled section of South Philadelphia that he knew as home.
“I suffered through gang wars and Black on Black crime,” Downing recalls decades later. But after leaving the Youth Study Center in Philadelphia and arriving at Glen Mills, he immediately recognized things were going to be different.
“I noticed this (Glen Mills) was a totally different environment,” Downing said. “It made me feel comfortable…good food, nice clothes, decent place to sleep. Staff members were decent and kind.”
He recognizes the life lessons he learned at the Glen Mills Schools.
“First and foremost, I learned the value of a human life. When I came here, things were first, and people were second. When I left here, people were first, and things were second,” Downing shared.
Downing recalls the close relationships he had, and in some cases still has, with current and former staff members at the school who helped him navigate the difficult and challenging road from the dangerous city streets to adulthood.
“These people were more than just counselors- they were like extended family members,” an emotional Downing said.
One of those people was C.D. Ferrainola, who was the Executive Director of the school at the time. Downing vividly remembers how Mr. Ferrainola recognized his leadership qualities and asked him to become a positive leader for his peers- which he did through his work with the Battling Bulls Club.
“He was like my father and he believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” an emotional Downing remembers. “He made me feel like I could do anything.”
Even with that support, Downing admits a transformation didn’t happen overnight and that it was a slow process.
“I had a lot of street in me,” Downing recalls bluntly.
However, Downing specifically remembers a moment when he realized his instincts had become much more gentlemanly and mindful of others. He recalls going on a homepass from the school via crowded public transportation. Proudly wearing a Glen Mills jacket and carrying a Glen Mills bag, he offered up his seat to a lady who would have otherwise had to stand. Before coming to Glen Mills, he said he was “self-centered and insensitive to other people’s needs.”
Now in retirement, he continues to give back to others, much like he did as a leader in the Bulls Club decades prior, as he trains young boxers.
Downing summed up his feelings about the school and he wants others to have the same transformative and life-saving advantage he had years ago.
“Without (having an opportunity to attend) Glen Mills, people are going to die young,” Downing said.