While most of Philadelphia is quietly asleep, residents near Lanier Playground in Grays Ferry are already awake and ready to hit the pavement.
They call themselves the “phenomenal, elegant Lanier walkers.” They’re a group of mostly seniors in the neighborhood, and three mornings a week, they get together and get moving as part of the We Walk PHL program. Their goal? To loop around the park for an hour or so.
“When we first started, we couldn’t do it,” said Joan McAllister, the park’s We Walk leader. “We have come a long way, all of us. And I’m proud to say that.”
McAllister has been the We Walk leader since 2018, when Lanier Playground reopened to the neighborhood after years of being closed. Now, the green space features a playground for kids, a dedicated dog park, exercise stations, and a trail around the perimeter — perfect for walking.
The 67-year-old leader was motivated to take on the role to stay active.
“I’m all about self-care,” said McAllister. “I don’t want to be immobile at this age, honey. We’ve got to have a healthy lifestyle.”
Healthy living is what We Walk PHL is all about.
The program started as a pilot in 2017 from the Fairmount Park Conservancy in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Health and Parks & Recreation. Five years later, there are walking groups at 17 different park locations across the city, but the walkers at Lanier are certainly the earliest risers.
“What we’re finding is there’s communities being born,” said Nicole Seahorn Hameen, the community program coordinator for Fairmount Park Conservancy. “People who normally wouldn’t have interacted, engaged, chatted or talked are now in conversation, are now eating together, are now building and planning together in various ways.”
Hameen knows from experience the importance of connecting with others, especially in nature. She started out walking at FDR Park in South Philadelphia.
The walks, the routine, and the people have become an important part of people’s days and lives.
More than a walk in the park
Everyone who has joined the walking group at Lanier Playground has their own motivation as to why they wake up early and put one foot in front of the other.
Curtis A. McAllister was a longshoreman on the docks of Philadelphia for 40 years. He’s used to waking up early, he says. He got up at 4:30 a.m. for decades and can’t break the habit.
He’s married to Joan, the walking leader at the park, so he joins her. It’s been good for his health.
“It helps me physically,” said McAllister. “When I first started, my blood pressure was high. But everything is kind of mellow now.” The 68-year-old has lost around 30 pounds in the four years he’s been walking.
“I feel wonderful,” he said.
After retiring from the military, Linda Clayton wanted someone to walk with. She did some research online and learned about the We Walk PHL group at Lanier, then, she just showed up one morning.
“Being outside with all the trees and dogs and things like that, it just gives you a better perspective,” said Clayton. Plus, McAllister’s positive energy kept her coming back. “She just keeps us all together and grounded.”
Rosemarie Searles Boatwright also joined the group in search of community. Originally from West Philadelphia, the 70-year-old was new to the neighborhood and was hoping to meet people.
“I prayed for this because I knew I needed to know people in South Philly,” said Boatwright. “God answered my prayers.”
Karen Fisher lives at a nearby building for seniors and works with Joan as a morning leader. The 67-year-old is out seven mornings a week and has been a part of this group for four years, but says she’s been walking for 10 years in total.
“The motivation to get out here early in the morning is my greatest,” said Fisher. “I get to say my morning prayers as I’m walking and the air is a little bit fresher in the morning.”
Fisher’s walking has helped her manage her diabetes, and make friends, too.
“We’re all very supportive of everybody. We share in everybody’s life. If you don’t come out, we want to know what happened,” said Fisher. She used to walk with her companion — Misty, a teacup Yorkie who passed away this past year.
“Two of them went with me when I had to put my baby down, and they stayed with me all day,” she recalled. The group is “very loving and caring.”
Sometimes they hang out outside of the park too. Twice a year, they all go out for a big lunch. This year, they’re going to the Cheesecake Factory to have a good time.
Until then, they’ll keep walking.
“This park is here for anybody and everybody,” said Joan McAllister. Her husband, Curtis, hopes that more young people join in on the fun.
Anyone can join a We Walk PHL group at any time by visiting myphillypark.org or the group’s Facebook page. Fairmount Park Conservancy is currently hosting a Park Hopper Challenge, where participants can win prizes for participating in walks or attending events at four different parks across Philadelphia.