“If knowing was a prerequisite, then we would have never started.” Jerome Shabazz started Overbrook Environmental Education in 1998 by teaching at Overbrook High School. As he saw grades continue to improve, he wanted a way to accommodate continuous student engagement and sought the space at 61st and Lancaster Avenue for hands-on education, and thus birthed the continuously expanding Overbrook Environmental Education Center.
“It’s a transformational space”, Shabazz said, both literally and figuratively. They first pulled out forty tons of trash from the former EPA Brownfield site, transformed the land, and are now transforming the lives of community members through programming and training. Keyonna, 18, one of OEEC’s six summer WorkReady students from the Philadelphia Youth Network, gave me an enthusiastic tour. “I like this program,” she said. “I didn’t know anything, and now I know a bunch. I go home and tell my mom ‘You should get a rain barrel’, and next year we’re going to have a garden!” OEEC has engaged an additional 6,900 students since 2002.

Jerome Shabazz, Kirtrina Baxter, and the OEEC summer WorkReady crew pose by their orchard!
POP first partnered with OEEC in 2012, helping them to transform a grassy drainage swale into a food forest planting featuring apples, cherries, peaches, figs, grapes, and a wide range of berries, flowers, and herbs.  Since then, POP has assisted with additional plantings of pollinator gardens, plums, and even pomegranates.  The lush shades of green and flowers in every color of the rainbow immediately sooth you as you approach OEEC’s outdoor space. Shabazz said, “People go nuts for the strawberries”, which have taken over the front of the orchard area, and the apple tree and grape vines are overflowing with fruit for harvest later in the season. All produce from the orchard and high tunnel are distributed freely to the community. In addition to their orchard and pollinator garden, the OEEC landscape features pervious pavement in the parking lot, a green roof, rain barrels, a water retention basin, a high tunnel, a playground, and more.
The indoor area, which used to be a Wine and Spirits Shoppe, currently is adorned with mosaics, has a café space, community gathering space, community art, classrooms, and an aquaponics demonstration in the works. They want OEEC to be “a third place beyond work and home”. Some of their classes include yoga, Zumba, line dancing, art, and cooking. They’ve recently acquired the building on the other side of the outdoor space as well and have plans to rehabilitate that to become a community wellness center. “I can see a difference in how people want to live”, says Shabazz. To learn more and get involved, visit the Overbrook Environmental Education Center website .
A grassy drainage swale is now a vibrant food forest with figs, cherries, and lots of flowers and herbs!
Orchard Report by Robyn Mello, POP Education & Outreach Director.