The garden across from J.G. Blaine School, filled with vibrant orange mums and brightly painted blue fences, held a small class of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students one crisp Friday morning.
While on the surface the garden appears to be a place solely for learning, Urbanstead Program Director Lisa Gaidanowicz explained that this oasis is in fact a line of defense in the war against crime.
According to Philadelphia police data, six youth shootings (involving those age 14 to 17) have occurred this year between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 in the 22nd district, which includes Strawberry Mansion. In 2012, the 22nd district accounted for 13.7 percent of all youth shootings in the city (involving those age 14 to 24).
Children are consistently surrounded by violence, and Gaidanowicz explained that the garden has the potential to shield them.
“These kids are facing things that soldiers have had to face. They are living in a dangerous system,” she said. “I have been working with the vulnerable youth in Philadelphia for about six years, and I have lost six students to violence.”
A study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that those living near green spaces often felt safer in their communities. Gaidanowicz believes that this same concept applies to the children within the garden.
“They can just be themselves and not have to worry about all that armor and fear. They let go of that fear because they know they’re safe. It’s huge,” she said. “So it’s more than just the food. It’s creating a safe place for kids to be kids.”
The children’s teacher, Atuwfa Muhammad, said that her class views the garden as a calming place.
“They feel very at ease and that are willing to jump right in and help,” she said.
Rasheen Hill, 12, a student in the class, described the garden as his place for discovery, a place that he loves.
His classmate, Travis Green, 12, had spent that Friday discovering the beauty of bugs.
“We looked at the leaves and there was creatures on it,” he exclaimed.
“It’s going to create healthier communities and safe communities in the long run. So it’s much bigger than just getting a good diet,” Gaidanowicz said with a smile. “It touches all aspects about development.”
– Text, images and video by Lizzy O’Laughlin