When Mahim Siddiqui was attending Radnor High School, a common complaint from classmates centered around not getting the right car as a birthday present. That wasn’t an issue for Siddiqui. He walked everywhere. In the United States since age 13, he’d moved from Florida at 16 with $182 in his bank account. Born in Bangladesh, he’d migrated between continents nine times, largely supporting himself. A sister housed him in Bryn Mawr and later Newtown Square.
Now 22, the Temple University graduate was a bit of an outlier back then. But he wasn’t an outcast, thanks to his social skills. He played football, wrestled, ran track and even performed in a theater group. But Siddiqui lacked a support system. He found it in the Herb It Forward Foundation. “Everyone has a story and has hardships, but HIFF creates an opportunity to look past that and create a level playing field,” he says.
The Conshohocken-based organization provides education, opportunities and outreach to a select group of inner-city and suburban Philadelphia area youth. Over seven years, it’s helped send 210 students to college, providing intervention, programming, training and support in the process. HIFF is an extension of Shelly Lotman-Fisher’s efforts to honor the legacy of her father, Herb Lotman, founder of West Chester-based Keystone Foods. Lotman introduced the frozen hamburger patty to McDonald’s and invented the Chicken McNugget, among other billion-dollar moneymakers. Lotman died in May 2014 at 81. His company is now part of Tyson Foods.
Beyond annual scholarship awards, HIFF keeps students engaged through educational series, workshops, character-building exercises, leadership camps, holiday gatherings and more. About a 100 applications a year arrive between December and March. Ranging in age from 17 to 25, applicants must demonstrate strong financial need. Winners are announced in May. Each year, 32 students receive up to $5,000 each in annual scholarship money.
“First, we mailed a check to each school. Each winner thanked us, and we were excited for them—and that was it. Then we thought, ‘we can do more than write a check.'”
Lotman-Fisher’s portion of her father’s life insurance payout initially fueled the foundation. Her brother and mother also contribute, and the organization has a generous board and strong public support. “First, we mailed a check to each school,” she says. “Each winner thanked us, and we were excited for them—and that was it. Then we thought, ‘We can do more than write a check.’”
HIFF’s conversion to a multifaceted, highly functional “family” started with the students. All had diverse, challenging backgrounds, and many wanted to make a difference. Yet they felt isolated and misunderstood. “We figured, if we put them together, they’d see they’re not alone, that there was a group of students out there with the same drive and attitude,” says Lotman-Fisher, who lives in Villanova.
A turning point came when Lotman-Fisher hosted a day in Philadelphia for the 10 first-place winners, renting hotel space and providing dinner. “We all have had to conquer things in our lives, but instead of that getting us down, we all want to give back and lift each other up,” says Ashley Walker, a Drexel Hill native and first-generation college student at the University of Scranton.
Walker is the communications coordinator for the HIFF Peer Mentorship Team. She became a scholar during her senior year at Upper Darby High School in 2017. She was part of HIFF’s first leadership camp, even meeting Michelle Obama at one point. “I’m so lucky to have four amazing years as part of this family,” she says. “My HIFF family has supported me through every new obstacle life throws my way.”
Herb Lotman, too, came from humble roots. His lone alma mater was Overbrook High School. He tried the University of Pennsylvania but didn’t last a semester in the night classes necessitated by his 3 a.m. meat truck runs with his father. One night, a professor threw an eraser at him in an effort to wake him. He threw it back, and the experiment was over. “Overbrook was his college,” says Lotman-Fisher. “He always said that one of the few things no one can take away from you is your education. He loved mentorship and young people who wanted to do well in the world.”
A new book celebrating Lotman’s life and the history of Keystone Foods debuts this summer. A grandson designed a cover based on the little red truck Lotman and his father had when they started the business with the smallest USDA-approved factory in the country. The book will be privately published and circulated. “I can see him standing there, hands on his hips, that glint in his eye,” Lotman-Fisher says. “When he’d smile, his eyes disappeared into his face. He’d be so proud.”
Siddiqui was a first-place HIFF winner when he graduated from Radnor in 2017. He started a nonprofit initiative at Temple his first year, directly reflecting the organization’s message. “Do you fend for yourself or give back to someone else?” he asks. “What’s been most fulfilling to me has been being there for others and watching them grow.”
That first year, Siddiqui became a HIFF student board member, serving as a liaison for incoming winners. Today, he has some distinct goals. He’d like to adopt a child, establish an overseas nonprofit microfinancing operation and start a nonprofit theater company—all by the age of 35.
“Through their stories, we find common ground as human beings,” says Lotman-Fisher. “We can live by example and show the world what can be.”