North Philly Peace Park begins to take shape

A group of children from the neighborhood help build the North Philly Peace Park Schoolhouse and Community Ecology Center. ­— TRIBUNE PHOTO BY SAMARIA BAILEY

Volunteers with the Philadelphia Coalition for the Heart completed the first phase of the North Philly Peace Park Schoolhouse and Community Ecology Center, located near 24th and Jefferson streets, on Nov. 23.

Constructed entirely from recycled materials, the center is planned to open in March 2014 and will be a place for neighborhood youth to come and learn various sciences and hands-on skills.

“We are going to bring in the most skilled, qualified and love-filled instructors to teach our kids in agricultural sciences, math, engineering and conflict resolution,” said Tommy Joshua, a coalition volunteer who is leading the effort. “The purpose is to promote ecology and community and to give the children of north Philadelphia the benefits of an advanced education.”

As of Nov. 23, the volunteers, including kids from the neighborhood, finished construction of the building’s frame and base — composed of wooden panels, recycled tires and cement.

The windows, made from, recycled plastic and glass bottles — and ceiling were to be completed later that weekend.

Joshua said the materials were all gathered by the volunteers or donated by passersby wanting to help in some way.

“We built this school completely from volunteer labor and from materials that are readily available in our community,” Joshua said. “We got tires from abandoned lots and we also a got a lot of donations. People from the community donated tires, concrete, wood, sand and tools. Before we knew it we had everything we needed.”

Joshua said phase two of the project will include completing the cement work, laying the floor, hanging the door, furnishing, painting and decorating the schoolhouse.

The third and final phase, planned to begin after January, will be arranging programming for the community.

Meanwhile, some of the kid volunteers from the neighborhood said they enjoy working on the project and are using it as a learning experience.

“It’s been fun, coming out here everyday, seeing kids you’ve never met,” said T. Lawrence, a seventh-grade home school student who lives in the neighborhood. Lawrence has helped build the schoolhouse from the beginning and said he has taught some of the more recent child volunteers how to do the cement work. In the process, he said he has learned “roofing” and “how to build one myself.”

His mother was also glad he was a part of the project, because it keeps him from “going out and getting into fights.”

Other volunteers said they are using the project as a means to give back.

“I came today to help. I’ve been placing bottles [for windows] and putting concrete up,” said Amanda Andrade, a sustainable design graduate student from Philadelphia University. “I plan to continue. Whatever I learn in life, my aim is to teach as many people as I know.”

Joshua agreed, noting he and the other volunteers plan to work through the winter to have the schoolhouse completed on time.

The only thing, he said, that would slow the work is the “snow,” especially considering what he described as the urgency of such a program in the neighborhood.

“It’s worth it because an education is the most important thing a person can have,” he said. “If you miss out on that, you miss out on [your] potential. Reynolds [Elementary School] Vaux [High School] have both been closed down. So this is a neighborhood that really needs what we are doing here.”

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