Arboretum provides new roots for lives

Recovery: A 55-acre urban sanctuary in Pennsylvania offers an unlikely labor force a chance to have a paying job and to learn work skills.

May 27, 2001|By Julie Stoiber | Julie Stoiber,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GERMANTOWN, Pa. - Not far from where Awbury Arboretum's state-champion river birch spreads its improbably wide branches to the sky, Sidney Jones ran a crack house, raking in $1,500 a week.

He doesn't make nearly that much now.

Jones, a recovering addict from East Falls, Pa., is one of 13 men struggling to refocus their lives through a program at the Germantown arboretum that teaches landscaping skills and offers a chance at a paying job.

It's dirty work of a different sort, for which Jones and the other trainees get $20 a week, a transportation pass and a chance to roam the 55-acre urban sanctuary, a place lush with trees and bird life.

The scenery is a heck of a lot better these days, Jones, 47, admits.

A peaceful place

"I like being around gardens, where you can see yourself putting back and watching things grow, especially when you're so used to destroying things," said Jones, who lives in transitional housing in Germantown. "This place brings a peace to me."

Linda Brown, who is in charge of the arboretum's adult education, isn't sure how many trainees have entered the program since it began in 1997 but says more than 30 graduates have landscaping jobs, some with large local firms, that start at $8 an hour with benefits.

The arboretum itself has hired a number of graduates, including Vanessa Rivera, a product of the foster-care system who had three children and no work experience when she entered the program in 1998 during the welfare-to-work push.

"I came in the middle of summer, and it was gorgeous up here," said Rivera, 25, a trainee supervisor. "I guess I've known since day one that this was it for me."

Having a steady job has allowed her to buy a home with a big yard in North Philadelphia.

Jim Holloway, 55, made his way to Awbury after a series of transient jobs and a history of problems that he sums up as "the whole gamut of inner-city life."

Something clicked at the arboretum. In 1998, he was named tree tender of the year by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He also was chosen for an internship at Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College.

He returned to Awbury, where he instructs trainees, most of whom now come from homeless shelters and transitional housing. Most have substance-abuse problems. They must be clean for three months before they can train there.

"For the first time in my life, I've had some stability," Holloway said.

But not everyone who starts the training finishes, Brown said. Some don't like the work. Others leave for fast-food jobs.

`Now he's in jail'

Most disheartening to the Awbury staff are those like the well-spoken young man who read at lunchtime and showed promise as a landscaper.

"He relapsed," Brown said. "Now he's in jail."

When a trainee fails to show up for a couple of days, he's likely to get a visit from someone from the arboretum.

"When you ain't did nothing in a while, you got to push yourself," trainee Ricardo Wilson, 52, said. "All you got to do is be cool, be humble and learn."

Even as they try to turn their lives around, the trainees help maintain a valuable city institution, one that, like many not-for-profits, is perennially short-staffed.

"It's very important for us because they help maintain the arboretum," executive director Gerry Kaufman said. "We get a lot of work out of them."

The arboretum - which Kaufman expects to be named to the National Register of Historic Places this spring - was preserved as a green space by the family of Henry Cope, a Quaker shipping merchant. Its rolling hills and meadows draw picnickers, nature lovers, and high school cross-country track teams.

Kaufman reflected on the success of the program, which is run under contract to the city's Office of Emergency Shelter and Services.

"For people who've been on the street in the city," he said, "this is transforming."

Stephen A. Pascavitch, who joined the staff in 1999, has seen such transformations over and over. After 25 years of running his own tree company in Fishtown, he wanted a change.

Upon hearing that the arboretum was forming a for-profit landscape company, he applied to be general manager. The company consisted of the top graduates from the second training class.

`I was stunned'

"The first day I showed up, I was stunned," Pascavitch said. "It was all women."

And they had little landscaping experience.

"We had major contracts, serious contracts," Pascavitch said. "I was wondering: Do we have the skill to do this? We just put our hearts to it and our minds to it."

In its second year of operation, Awbury Landscape Services Inc. turned a profit. It counts among its clients the Franklin Institute, the Cliveden historic site, the Fairhill Burial Ground, and the Japanese House and Garden in West Fairmount.

The crew still consists mostly of women, but Pascavitch has hired one man and breaks into a grin as he tells the story of how one mancame to be employed.

The arboretum staff found the man camped out on the grounds, near the community gardens. Brown asked him if he might be interested in the training program. The man walked away, and she, still talking, followed him. Pascavitch figured she was wasting her time.

Yet, the next morning, there was the man. He enrolled, was placed in a shelter, and was hired upon graduation. He turned out to be "a great worker," Pascavitch said, and today is "a very important part of the crew."

Jeff Herder, a trainee with dreams of forming his own landscaping company, listened as Pascavitch told the story. When it ended, he said: "That's one of the miracle stories there."

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