Gardens Inspire “Roots to Reentry”

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Danielle M. Reyes, Senior Program Officer at The Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation

by Danielle M. Reyes

Yesterday, was an absolutely beautiful day to be outdoors enjoying and admiring nature.  So it initially seemed rather unfortunate to find myself sitting indoors, in a windowless room, attending a conference.  That fortune changed as I boarded a bus for the afternoon site session: Timely Collaboration to Help Low-Skilled Adults Advance Their Careers organized by the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) a local site of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.

Instead of being shuffled into a building in another part of Philadelphia, we stepped off the bus and onto the dusty paths of Bartram’s Gardens, the 18th century home of John Bartram.  Bartram, I learned, was a naturalist, botanist, and explorer of great significance to American botany.  The story is that more than 250 years ago, Bartram, was stopped in his tracks by a daisy while plowing his fields. The plant’s simplicity and beauty inspired John and his son, William, to spend the rest of their lives exploring, collecting and seeking to understand all forms of nature.  Today, the 45-acre estate continues to inspire thousands of visitors who use it yearly for tours, educational programs, special events, recreation and as a community cultural center.

On this day, in addition to a group of over-dressed conference badge wearing funders, the gardens were also being visited by a group of seven men wearing smiles and orange vests and on day release from prison.  These men were participants in the Roots to Reentry, run by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.  It is a partnership between the prison system, regional employers, and community organizations that moves ex-offenders into high-demand jobs in landscaping and horticulture. The partnership provides intensive technical training, life skills support, and job placement services.  It is one of several workforce initiatives currently being funded by JOIN and slated to expand to serve 50 men, with support from a Social Innovation Fund Grant.

After hearing from local funders who are supporting this work, our bus pulled off the driveway of Bartram’s Gardens and onto the busy streets of the low-income neighborhood that sits immediately beyond its entrance.  I felt saddened to be leaving the serenity of that beautiful green space and heading back downtown.  But while our bus was taking us back to the comforts of that windowless conference hotel that I had lamented over earlier in the day, another would be returning those seven men to prison that night.

During that bus ride back I found myself thinking not only of the critical role that philanthropy can play in supporting alienated populations and taking risks to fund small and unique projects, but about one of the Roots to Reentry participant’s comments during our visit.

“What do you like most about the program?” the young men were asked.  After an initial pause, one man somewhat bashfully leaned forward and said, “I like learning about plants.” While our group smiled he added, “I thought I would just be working out here and its hard work!  But I didn’t know I would learn so much about plants and trees…it’s something I can teach my kids.”

And so the power of one daisy to inspire continues.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

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