Afterschool program grows food, connections

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In a previous post, Peak Johnson reflected on his experience in an afterschool program, and in this entry he looks at an afterschool program focused on gardening. More attention is being paid to healthy eating and access to fresh foods inside of schools, and students in this program spend their time outside of school growing their own fresh food.

What used to be nothing but a huge parking lot for the Philadelphia Housing Authority has become something much more to a group of residents living in the Haddington section of Philadelphia.

Nearly hidden amidst a cluster of homes, the Conestoga Pearl Gardens is full of garden beds neatly in rows, cherry trees ready to be picked, and a park area where children are able to play. The garden is just one of many that the nonprofit Urban Tree Connection oversees. The organization’s primary goal is to engage children and adults from some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods in community-based, urban greening projects.

A beautiful sign, decorated with yellow suns and red roses, welcomes those who enter the garden and pass by the large trees that are almost guarding the entrance. Seedlings of onions, cucumbers, string beans, and other vegetables occupy the beds, waiting to blossom as youth ages 7-10 tend to their creations.

It was evident as I sat down to begin my observation of the program that the children seemed happy and carefree: running around and following their instructors from each garden bed to the next and pulling weeds up to make room for their soon-to-be-born onions.

“Before we had actually realized what was going on, Skip Wiener, founder of Urban Tree, had already began planting trees,” says Lisa Barkley, block captain and president of Conestoga. “He had a vision of what he wanted to do, and that included getting the community involved.”

Barkley, along with the vice president of Conestoga Pearl Gardens, Koanta “Ann” Toppings, has been a part of the project for 10 years since it first began. Throughout the years the two have taken notice of how Urban Tree and the garden itself have “really changed the children.” Before, children would climb the trees of the then-vacant lot. Now, the children are the trees’ protectors.

“We plant fruits and vegetables here,” said Jamir Marshall, a student of the program. “After, we sell them around the neighborhood.”

Another student, Melissa Rice, age 10, eagerly sat down beside me, interested in what I was doing with my yellow notepad. I explained to her somewhat of what I was doing and then decided to ask her a rather simple question, “How long have you been attending here?” She took a moment to ponder what I had asked and replied, “Long enough.” Smiling, she proceeded to follow her peers and pull out weeds in a flowerbed.

Pearl Garden’s older kids, known as the "veggie kids," lead the market stand that Jamir referred to. Earlier on, the group would just harvest and give away the produce for free around their neighborhood, and some customers would give the group tips.

“It started like that; now we’re trying to take it a step further and actually build them a mobile produce stand,” says Barkley. “It’ll be stationed on Vine Street, here in Haddington, where there’s lots of traffic. We think that if people see children doing something positive, they won’t mind helping them along.”

In addition to that, Barkley and Toppings wants to take the kids to an entrepreneurial program where they can learn and then set up a bank account. The money they would make from selling vegetables and fruits would go into their accounts and would be theirs.

“We did a little bit at a time,” says Skip Wiener during a phone conversation when discussing the origin of Pearl Gardens. “I thought it was a nightmare when first seeing the space, it was trash and piles of dirt everywhere. It was like a true out-of-control vacant lot that people were abusing.”

Despite the challenge that Wiener seemed to be up against, he was able to receive help from Mission of Philadelphia, which provided Weiner with a bulldozer and removed much of the trash.

The idea of Urban Tree Connection came to Wiener when working with a group of students on a gardening project at Overbrook High School.

Indirectly, everyone who lives around Pearl Gardens is aware of it and the work of the children. Not everyone in the community is involved, but both Barkley and Toppings says that it’s a work in progress.

“As people come into the neighborhood, we try to get them involved in this,” says Toppings.

“One of the things we try to focus on here is eating healthy,“ adds Barkley. “As a culture, we don’t eat exactly right. By this garden being here, the kids have learned to eat healthier, and we hope that they take it into the home.”

Toppings and Barkley agree that it is good that the children get to see the role models that are forming in front of them. They tell of moments where the children will wander around in the garden looking for their instructors. At the moment Urban Tree meets only twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursday from 4-6 p.m.

This program begins with time designated for learning about gardening and agriculture and then leading into homework/reading time. Barkley explained that this program is important, like so many others, because the children need some kind of activity to keep them away from trouble.

“You would be amazed how many people want to help us,” says Barkley. “We are a model of what can be done.”