On Wednesday our first activity was a touristy one, not a volunteer experience — a winter tour of the famous (infamous?) Eastern State Penitentiary. It was definitely a winter tour; we were all very grateful for the mid-tour hot chocolate break. But hey, at least we didn’t have to live there! We all agreed that it was pretty creepy and strange to casually take a tour through a place where so many people lived in solitary confinement for so many years, and where many consequently went insane. I think that it was actually a really worthwhile place to take the ASB group because part of the reason the city decided to keep the prison open as a museum was to educate people about the issues that prisons still face today (overcrowding, mental health, and class issues for example). It was cool in the context of our “nonprofit tour” to learn about the prison reform group that worked to get it shut down, as well. All in all, a fascinating but freezing experience.
After lunch, we headed on to activity #2 of the day — working in a community garden (whose location I do not think I can reliably tell you — I just got on Septa and followed the crowd — northeast Philly perhaps?). The garden, part of a network of other similar gardens supported by an organization called Philadelphia Green (part of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society), employs teens from the neighborhood as well as providing some plots for community members to use for themselves. The food from the garden goes into local markets, corner stores, and restaurants. When “local food” means three blocks away, that’s pretty cool. My group worked with Hannah (a Haverford alum!) to dig up weeds and turn over the soil, trying not to decapitate too many worms in the process. A fun (and rather dirty) time was had by all, especially since the predicted rain showers didn’t come. As fun as mud is, it would have been a little gross to go on to activity #3 of the day covered in it…
…and activity #3 was a return to Germantown High School to work with Education Works again. It was great to see the same kids from the day before (some of us switched groups but I stuck with the 1st graders). Highlights included watercolor paintings of hearts, starts, and socks, reading a book about a dolphin in a bathtub, and teaching a girl about less than, greater than, and equals signs. The real highlights were their enthusiasm and smiles, though. However, those made it all the more sad to have to leave at the end and tell them no, we couldn’t be coming back the next day. The teachers and leaders at the after school program were inspiring and talented people with challenging jobs, but they could definitely use more consistent volunteer support (or for that matter, more paid staff — but budget freezes make that unlikely in the near future). As great as it is to get in there for a day or two and try to learn more about inner city education and meet the kids, this is the type of volunteer experience that really works best when you can make an extended commitment. Seeing the Americorps members there was a great example of how to go about that.
Our rather exhausted group headed to dinner (cheesesteaks on South St followed by delicious frozen yogurt) and then back to the hostel, where we may or may not have youtubed Taylor Swift music videos for a while. Shoutout to Zehra for the use of her computer. Anti-shoutout to Zehra for hijacking my facebook status.