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2021 Project of the Year: Memorial Grove, PowerCorpsPHL
At The Corps Network’s annual National Conference, we celebrate the important services Corps provide to communities and young people across the country by honoring Corps that have undertaken especially noteworthy endeavors within the past year. Projects of the Year are innovative and show a Corps’ ability to work with partner organizations, give Corpsmembers a positive experience, and provide the community with meaningful improvements.
This project included AmeriCorps members.
As an AmeriCorps workforce development initiative, PowerCorpsPHL (PCPHL) enrolls out-of-school or out-of-work 18-to-28-year-olds in an immersive 4-to-24-month program. Since 2013, PCPHL has engaged 684 young people and provided 660,507 service hours to the park system and green infrastructure in Philadelphia, PA. They have also lost 12 young people, including ten to gun violence. Five of those tragic deaths occurred in 2020.
To honor the leadership and contributions of these beloved Corpsmembers whose lives were taken, PCPHL built a Memorial Grove adjacent to their project headquarters and training center in Philadelphia’s East Fairmount Park. The area chosen for the project is a multi-acre plot of forested land that features a small creek. The goal was to transform this land into a publicly accessible space for healing from tragedy and loss.
For decades, the area had been neglected and was filled with invasive plants and vines, serving as a party space on the weekends and a dump area. As Corpsmembers began their typical forest restoration work on the project, they soon discovered additional needs and the area’s potential as a recreational and gathering space. Although, PCPHL isn’t new to invasive removal and park restoration, they felt the deeply important purpose of this project elevated their service to a new level.
Memorial Grove patio area, before and after.
Considering the scale of the project, the Corps developed a different approach. By breaking the work into smaller segments, the Corps could set attainable goals and Corpsmembers and staff could feel a sense of completion when a section was finished. The plan included first removing the larger, woody debris; applying sustainable practices to recycle as much as possible; saving as many native, desirable plants as they could; and taking advantage of every learning opportunity and chance to engage partners in the process. In conjunction with their partners in the City’s Parks & Recreation Department and Fairmount Parks Conservancy, PCPHL co-developed the trail design for the site, a new step for the Corps.
Midway through the construction of the Memorial Grove, PCPHL held a dedication ceremony to remind Corpsmembers and the public of the initial reasoning behind the park’s construction. Open to the public and following COVID-19 safety regulations, PCPHL invited Corpsmembers, staff, and alumni, and livestreamed the ceremony on social media. PCPHL’s Deputy Climate & Culture Manager, Kalef Jones, a 2017 Corpsmember of the Year, recited powerful words highlighting the importance of the Corps’ efforts to change lives and how the community must do more to help young people rise and overcome. In addition to Kalef’s speech, a 17-foot-tall dawn redwood was planted.
Outdoor classroom area, before and after.
During this first stage of the project, PCPHL’s Urban Forestry Fellows Crew cleared hundreds of invasive shrubs, felled dozens of invasive trees and created a web of about a half mile of trails throughout the site. The Foundations Crews also revitalized an overgrown stone patio area by the creek and planted native trees in different portions of the site. Overall, PCPHL removed thousands of pounds of trash, and recycled over 20 tons of organic matter.
Entering phase two of the project, PCPHL will host additional public events. Though the work is not fully completed, this project had an emotional impact on all the Urban Forestry Fellows; there was a sense of pride and responsibility that came with working on the memorial. The Fellows also gained experience in large-scale site management activities: they led new Corpsmembers, learned land management techniques, and practiced production arboriculture work.
An outcome of gaining these management responsibilities led multiple Urban Forestry alums to secure positions outside of PCPHL. Former members currently serve as a Site Supervisor for the PCPHL Foundations Program; a Land Management Fellow in the Philadelphia park system; and an arborist at Davey Trees. In addition, a record number of Foundations (first-term) members at PCPHL plan to interview for the Corps’ Urban Forestry/Natural Lands maintenance-stewardship careers pathway.
Not only has the project strengthened the Corps, but the Memorial Grove is deeply appreciated by the families of the 12 departed members. Many families have reached out to the program and arranged private tours of the space. They have expressed gratitude for the public recognition of their loved one and their contributions to the city. In addition to the Memorial Grove, PCPHL made a webpage that is accessible by scanning a sign at the grove, where visitors can learn more about these young men who were lost too soon.
The impact of the Memorial Grove on the Corps community and public is immeasurable. The memorial, trails, and outdoor classroom give PCPHL a signature common space to return and feel connected, both among Corpsmembers who are able to be there in person, and with those who are there in spirit.