From May to November of 2019, I was the Outreach Intern for Penn Park Orchard. This site was started in 2014 in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchard Project and Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services. Penn Park Orchard is located at the southernmost end of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Park in between the SEPTA tracks to the north and the Amtrak to the south; it is visible (but not easily accessible) from the South St Bridge. The setting is truly unique; while the orchard is located at the outskirts of campus, if you walk by on your morning commute you will see student athletes practicing their sport, dogs running after frisbees and even medical practitioners from HUP and CHOP walking around in their scrubs. The view of the city skyline from the orchard is absolutely stunning, and I think that is one of the reasons why there are so many morning visitors during the months of the spring, summer and early fall.
Penn Park Orchard is a community space for anyone and everyone, a welcoming mission of acceptance that I love to support. Throughout the summer and fall, there are a variety of events hosted at the orchard such as monthly workdays with POP that focus on orchard maintenance, edible plant workshops and pick-your-own harvests. Volunteers and event participants learn about and explore organic agriculture, sustainable food production, food justice and the botany of urban ecosystems while getting a chance to sample whatever food might be ripe at the time of their visit.
I found the position on the University of Pennsylvania’s job search site for students with work-study awards as part of their financial aid plans. I decided to apply for two main reasons. First, I wanted to learn more about gardening in order to develop some applicable skills for my post-grad plans with the Peace Corps in Peru, a health volunteer position that centers around combating malnutrition. I applied, interviewed and accepted the internship offer in early May. When my friends asked me what I was doing for the summer, they were surprised to learn that I was going to be working at Penn Park Orchard. Honestly, so was I! I also found it interesting that most of my friends did not even know the university had a community orchard. I hoped to show all my friends the orchard at some point over the preceding months so that they, too, could benefit from its beauty and bounty.
I remember walking to the orchard on my first day feeling a little bit apprehensive about what I was getting myself into while everyone else I knew were doing the nine-to-five office internship, but I was also feeling really excited. This excitement would only grow throughout the days and weeks of my internship. After meeting my wonderful supervisors through the Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services, Chloe and Bob, as well as amazing POP leaders like Phil, Chloe again, Michael, Alyssa and Kim, I knew that I was really lucky to have the opportunity that I did. I am constantly impressed by the knowledge that these people possess in regards to urban agriculture and community orchards as well as their dedication to the Penn and Philadelphia community.
I have many treasured memories that were part of this experience, but what stands out to me is one particularly hot morning in the beginning of September. Peering through the blackberry bushes, I intentionally took a few moments to pay attention to what I was sensing, hearing, touching and smelling. I wanted to burn the moment into my mind as a memory that would last for many years, especially during the months ahead at Penn that I had to look forward to. It is important to me to collect and cultivate these moments of complete calm and peace so that I can look back at them when I am feeling stressed or spread too thin. That day picking blackberries in Penn Park Orchard is one of those sacred, therapeutic memories for me, along with moments picking strawberries, laughing with the youth from the Rebel Ventures program and climbing fig trees to reach ripe fruit to share with the FRES office.
Now what else did I do as an intern besides nibbling berries and making memories? I organized volunteer orchard workdays with local community members and planned free, low-barrier events. I did social media, concentrating on expanding the reach of the already existing Facebook page and Instagram account. I expanded community-based food access opportunities by creating a direct harvest pipeline with community health promoters such as a weekly vegetable and fruit bag for over 80 low-income families and First Generation Low Income (FGLI) college students as well as Pick-Your-Own events with FGLI and low-income college students of color. This was the way that I wanted to actively practice what we preach in our mission statement: “this community orchard aims to educate and create access to local food for both the Penn community and the wider Philadelphia community.”
I also performed orchard maintenance tasks like tree pruning, weeding, mulching and tracking all harvest data by weight, quality and date. I was very proud that I planted a successful pumpkin patch from seed and constructed fencing for pest control. Considering that I had very little knowledge of urban agriculture and orchards before, I gained knowledge through experience and talking with experts in those fields. Penn FRES sponsored intern trips to Awbury Arboretum, Bartram’s Gardens, Sankofa Farms and Morris Arboretum, which gave me a wider understanding of the context of urban agriculture in Philadelphia and where POP fits into that.
Remember how I said that I applied to the Penn Park Orchard Outreach Internship for two main reasons? The first was building experience for my Peace Corps resume. But the second had to do with more of a personal rather than a professional goal. My mom is a gardener and is one of those people who is lucky enough to have a job that also happens to be her greatest passion in life, besides her dedication to family and friends. On my every-other-day phone calls with my mom, I started noticing that we always talked about the orchard in some way. The orchard became a conversation starter for me and my mom to relate more about her work, knowledge and lived experience.
Conversing with my mom about the orchard and general gardening soon became an important part of how we spend quality time together. When she learned that the Penn Park Orchard had a bunch of elderberries, we harvested and dried a couple pounds together to make elderberry tincture. One day when she was visiting me at my apartment off-campus, we took a nice walk down to the orchard to try the amazing champagne berries (golden raspberries). When I wanted to purchase pumpkins to plant, she drove me to her favorite nursery and helped me pick out the best looking ones. On her birthday, we went to the annual POP Orchard Dinner at The Woodlands and had a great night together, eating and laughing around the beautiful grounds. I discovered a shared passion that I had with my mother through this internship, which I am endlessly grateful for. Although my internship is coming to a close as we approach the end of the fall and I will not always live so close once I graduate next spring, I know that the Penn Park Orchard will remain an important feature in my visits back to Philadelphia. “Next summer, let’s check out those blackberry bushes on some early morning,” said my mom to me laughingly, when we had clearly missed out on the morning berry harvest one day in August, “before they’re all gone!”
Read more about the Penn Park Orchard here. Penn Park Orchard is always looking for more community members to get involved! Whether you are hoping to volunteer for a few hours or for a whole season, there is a place for you at the orchard. We welcome student groups, departments and offices. To schedule a volunteering event or orchard workshop, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog post written by Olivia Bridges, 2019 Outreach Intern for Penn Park Orchard.
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