“We approach our time here with the theory that everyone has something to teach,” Dr. Gerald Campano said Saturday at the Aquinas Center, 1700 Fernon St. “Therefore to support that belief, we must help these children to understand their diverse roles.”
The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education professor and his students visited the three-month-old Point Breeze location to cap their semester-long PennPal writing correspondence project with local Indonesian youngsters. Their interaction dovetailed with a mural panel painting, gardening and a neighborhood cleanup to give the eager minors a major sample of how they can bolster their communities.
“Everything we do operates through the lens of migration, immigration, multi- or interculturalism,” center director Dr. Bethany Welch said as the 20 budding scribes fraternized with their guests. “We’ve started mostly everything we envisioned and are thrilled about exploring relationships to foster shared senses of responsibility to education, community service and care for residents’ acclimation to the area.”
The West Philly dweller began her involvement with the ambitious initiative last year at the request of Monsignor Hugh Shields, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish, 1719 Morris St. Having completed her dissertation thesis on the adaptive reuse of church properties, Welch accepted the task of determining how best to repurpose what had been a convent, using St. John Neumann Place, 2600 Moore St., an independent living community that formerly served as St. John Neumann High School, among her case studies. The duo helped to dedicate the space Jan. 27 and have plotted its progress through English classes, faith formation activities, legal seminars, prayer groups and workshops.
“We’re here for everyone, especially immigrant families,” Welch said, citing steadily increasing Cambodian, Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Spanish and Vietnamese clans. “We want that solidarity and mutual support to be our hallmark.”
She has begun to burgeon unions with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and PhillyRising, the latter a City collaborative calling on exchanges with community figures to address crime and quality of life matters. The former agency has aligned Welch with artist Eliseo Silva, whose Northeast Philly-based creation “My Heart’s Sole Burning Fire: 100 Years of Filipinos in Greater Philadelphia” includes St. Thomas parishioners and who will likely venture to South Philly by July to create a mural for the center. For Saturday, though, the gathered inhabitants emphasized their spiritual home’s three-year friendship with the Ivy League institution.
“We’re looking for a long-term partnership to reinforce that everyone has knowledge and literacy,” Mount Airy occupant Campano, who attends Mass at St. Thomas, said. “We did a family program two years ago and are really excited to continue to develop means to promote peace and social justice.”
He made implementing the PennPal procedure one of his first choices and has delighted in each culminating experience through which his charges and their letter mates finally meet and engage in educational activities such as poetry recitals and crafts.
“We Indonesians really appreciate what St. Thomas Aquinas and University of Pennsylvania workers do for us,” 13-year parishioner Daby Lie of Seventh Street and Snyder Avenue said over the infectious sound of the young ones’ laughter.
With two children in the faith community, she also respects the emphasis on upping their civic awareness and overall exposure to culture and the power of self-belief.
“Everybody needs encouragement,” Lie said. “It’s just great to have it and be able to build on it with like-minded people.”
Following a pizza lunch, the youngsters bid farewell to their visitors and accompanied Welch to the courtyard for their other endeavors. Reflecting the cultural cornucopia of her helpers, the director selected Filipino, Indonesian, Mexican and Vietnamese images to inspire the creation of three panels for the enclosure.
“Let’s really show our pride in and acceptance of our nationalities and heritages,” Welch said as the Indonesian handlers gained valuable experience with understanding the depth of artistic depictions.
While the younger group experimented with colors and inquired about each piece’s intent and ways to enhance vibrancy, a few eighth graders tended to the center’s three-week-old garden.
“I’ve been a part of every service day since September,” Bernard Convento said of the month that intensified the repurposing process. “I’ve liked that because I’ve been able to help people in need and expand my knowledge of my responsibilities to them.”
Prior to Saturday, the resident of the 1700 block of South Bancroft Street had assisted with the installation of beds for retreats and prayerful weekends and spruced up the center’s walls and windows. Eagerly grabbing his equipment, he addressed the green space, which will yield goodies such as mint, peppers and tomatoes.
“For me as an eighth-grade student, it’s been really important to give my time and see to it that as many people as possible are happy,” the teenager, with teacher Joanne Gledhill looking on, said. “It’s great to be a part of so many things.”
Hoping by the summer to do a much larger cleanup akin to their January interaction with PhillyRising, the locals conducted a mini tidying of the surrounding environs to further their leader’s appreciation for their willingness to balance levity and severity in maintaining their community.
“I’ve accumulated a big network of resources through 10 years of similar work,” Welch said, “and I’m proud to be able to count today’s participants among my allies as we try to bring so much to fruition.”
“The combined efforts have been rewarding,” Campano, who might start the next PennPal campaign in the fall, added. “Now comes the task of uniting as many seemingly diverse beliefs and opinions together to get to the core of what drives all communities, namely, education and hope for our children.”
For more information, visit staquinas.com.