More than 75 high school students amassed at Wharton Square Park on Saturday morning to spruce up the public space and its surrounding neighborhoods.
But the massive gathering was not simply in the spirit of beautification. The South Philadelphia service event honored fallen United States military heroes.
Twice a year since 2014, the Travis Manion Foundation, a national nonprofit uniting veterans for youth and community empowerment programs founded upon the legacy of fallen Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion of Doylestown, takes over the Point Breeze area with tree planting, vacant plot clearing, alley decluttering and other cleanup activities.
This past weekend’s event, which was led by dozens of students from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, was one of more than 100 Operation Legacy service projects hosted by the Travis Manion Foundation throughout November, as the organization strives to “strengthen America’s national character by empowering veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop and lead future generations” – all in memory of Manion, who lost his life in Iraq in 2007.
“Travis was the greatest, really,” said volunteer and Navy veteran Terrence Fenningham, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy with Manion. “Unfortunately, the bad guys were able to get one of the best and brightest that this country had to offer. But, what can we do? We can honor his legacy through the foundation and we can do service. We can challenge the future generations like we are today with the St. Joe’s Prep students and having them do service in honor of the fallen.”
Each service project throughout the country honors different fallen heroes who embodied Manion’s mantra of “If Not Me, Then Who…”
The Wharton Square cleanup, in particular, honored a few fallen men of courage including, Army Maj. John Pryor, a surgeon who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008; Army Sgt. Matthew J. Sandri, a medic assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004; and Lt. Col. John C. Spahr, a Marine pilot who lost his life in Iraq in 2005.
Spahr was a graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep, which has had a longstanding alliance with the foundation.
The high school even has a Travis Manion Foundation leadership club.
“The Travis Manion mission is to unite communities through building character and through service and, at the root of that, is generosity and moving beyond the self in the service for a greater call and a greater mission,” said Susie Cook, an English teacher at St. Joe’s Prep and moderator for its TMF leadership club. “And at St. Joe’s Prep, our mission is to be generous and to serve in order to help a community grow and to make for a better city and for a better country. So, the mission alignment between the foundation and St. Joe’s Prep is clear.”
From students in drama club to the swim team, volunteers of all grades and domains dedicated their Saturday mornings to help South Philadelphia.
Though picking up leaves may seem like a small task, the act of goodwill is a way to localize the altruism demonstrated by fallen heroes.
“For the students, it teaches them a lot about selfless service and character and leadership and doing something for the greater good,” said Army veteran and combat medic Michelle Radu, the event’s project leader and the Northeast manager for TMF. “None of them are forced to be here today. So, I think it says a lot about them as well. All of these little things do add up to a larger scale of things, so it’s nice to have them all out here.”
Since Point Breeze has historically been considered one of Philadelphia’s most underserved communities, the foundation has rooted its efforts here since the inception of Operation Legacy.
In the past, this specific service day has dedicated time at Chew Playground, G.W. Childs Elementary School and other public spaces in this neighborhood.
In another local connection, one of the foundation’s sponsors, Firstrust Bank, established its first branch more than 85 years ago in Point Breeze.
“The idea of service and the idea of doing something for a cause greater than yourself is nationwide, but the best way to affect change is in your own backyard and to do it within your local area,” said Army veteran Steve Mills, who works with the holding company of Firstrust Bank. “And, that theme spreads throughout…Travis was in the military and did a lot of his service that way that we know about, but as people have spoken about him, it wasn’t just his military work.”
Though Manion was a hero overseas, Fenningham says some of his most compassionate moments were simple gestures at home.
In one instance, he recalls Manion defending a friend for not getting served food because of the color of his skin.
By encouraging high school students, and all volunteers, to participate in efforts greater than themselves, Manion’s legacy both on and off the battlefront will continue to stay alive.
“I think it’s so important to honor our fallen by challenging the living,” Fenningham said. “I really do. Travis and so many others gave the ultimate sacrifice for us, and what are we going to do with that? Let’s learn from what they did and just be better and challenge others. And, if we don’t do it, who will?”