By Colleen Boyle Sharp
Special to the CS&T

Where abandoned houses once stood and crime flourished, seeds of hope are now being planted to give an old neighborhood a new look.

About 40 members of the Kensington community looked on as the ribbon was cut at the dedication of the new Catholic Social Service Greenhouse Project on July 21. The greenhouse, which sits on one of the several empty parcels of the 2600 block of Potter Street, is the newest community development effort of the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center in North Philadelphia.

“I think the greenhouse is going to be a huge benefit to the Kensington community,” said Estella Reyes-Bugg, administrator of the community center. “There is a lot of blight and no green spaces in Kensington. This greenhouse will not only beautify the neighborhood and lift people’s self-esteem but I think people will be happy to see the results of their hard work.”

The idea for the greenhouse developed after 1,000 Kensington residents were surveyed during the building of the Cardinal Bevilacqua Center.

Since opening its doors in 2003, the center, located on Kensington Avenue, has become a vital part of this inner-city neighborhood,offering a wide range of social, cultural, educational and enrichment programs.

“Through the surveys we learned the residents of Kensington had a lot of priorities,” Reyes-Bugg said. “Besides youth development and recreational activities, the crime and the blight in the community were high concerns on everyone’s list.”

Sister Delores Egner, S.S.J., principal of Visitation B.V.M. School, is excited by the educational possibilities the greenhouse will create.

“The children at Visitation school will be using the greenhouse now as part of the school’s science program. This will help us to create a more hands-on science curriculum and one all our students can experience. Hopefully this is just the beginning,” she said. “There are a lot of vacant lots here in Kensington; it would be nice to see them turned into vegetable and flower gardens, maybe even developing some sort of co-op within the community.”

Sister Delores, along with several faculty and students of Visitation B.V.M., braved the first real summer heat and joined their neighbors in assembling the greenhouse – just days before the dedication ceremony. Funded by a $10,000 community grant awarded to the Cardinal Bevilacqua Center by St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children, a spacious 8.5-by-20.5 foot greenhouse was built – large enough to hold four raised planting beds.

In preparation for the ribbon cutting, children from the center’s summer camp program filled the greenhouse beds with compost and planted the hothouse’s first flowers.

“I really liked working in the greenhouse and hope people will see what we did, and [will] also want to help,” said Mia Farrow, a sixth grade student at Conwell Russell Middle School. “You don’t have to know how to garden to help. You just have to want to make the neighborhood better.”

Denise Peterson, an Americorps Vista Volunteer who has been working with Catholic Social Services since August, said she hopes the greenhouse will have a ripple effect in the Kensington neighborhood.

“I want the children not only to take away what they have learned and share it with their families,” she said, “but continue to have the sense of pride they feel today, knowing that they made a big difference in their community.’

Colleen Boyle Sharp is a freelance writer and photographer and a parishioner of St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia.