Roxborough High gets a freshly painted gym and refurbished garden

Nearly 100 students and volunteers from all around Philadelphia came to Roxborough High School on Saturday morning to pull weeds and plant fruit trees and berry bushes on Philly Orchard Day. 

While similar projects were happening all over the city, volunteers in Roxborough painted and gardened both outside and inside the school.

Eileen DiFranco, the school nurse, heads the School Beautification Club, and for the second year in a row, has enlisted the help of the Philadelphia Orchard Project. 

“We couldn’t have done it without the Philadelphia Orchard Project,” she says during her lunch break in the cafeteria. “I just said I wanted to do it but they’re the ones that actually hopped to it.”

The volunteers’ lunches were donated by Roma Pizza, Kaplan Bagels, Shoprite, and Tasty Twisters.

Along the driveways outside of the school, volunteers hacked at weeds, raked dead leaves, and planted shade trees, which aim to prevent weeds from growing back. 

“We did all of this last year and so much of it is back,” grumbles Marlene Schleifer, who can often be seen volunteering at the Ivy Ridge Trail and many other outdoor spaces in Northwest Philadelphia.

“I sort of wind up doing whatever needs to be done,” says Schleifer. 

Courtyard cleanup 

But inside the school’s courtyard, students were busy planting apple trees, asian pear trees, a persimmon tree, as well as, raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry bushes.

All of the fruit, according to Phil Forsyth who was directing the courtyard gardening for the Philadelphia Orchard Project, is chemical-free and is intended to be harvested during the school year.

The plants are all perennial, meaning they will return to bear fruit year after year, and the Orchard Project volunteers expect to return every season to provide “long term agricultural support.”

All of the plants are donated by the Orchard Project, whose volunteers are used to growing food in urban gardens even smaller than this courtyard.

“In the city we consider one fruit tree to be an orchard, so this is plenty big,” says Forsyth.

Focusing on renewal 

The Philadelphia Orchard Project started its work last year, but this year serious planting can begin.

Wearing workman’s gloves, Principal Stephen Brandt explained how last year, clearing the grounds was the priority.

“Last year it was a lot of removal, a lot of overgrown weeds,” he said.  This year we’re focused on renewal. We’re planting lots of bushes and trees.”

Brandt explained to Chris Johnson, who was trying to get his required 20 hours of community service for his senior project, how the shade trees will prevent weeds from returning next year. He admits that he learned that from the Philadelphia Orchard Project volunteers.

“I have no greenthumb whatsoever,” he laughs as he continued showing Johnson how to rake mulch.

Pitching in 

Volunteers from the Day & Zimmerman company lent a hand, as well as about 15 Drexel students from the Vietnamese Student Association.

Roxborough students from the Junior ROTC, wore white coveralls and painted every inch of the smaller gymnasium, where they practice their military drills.

Dorianne Joseph, a junior yells to a freshman that he missed a spot, and in true military fashion, the younger cadet obediently returns to the spot that he missed.

Dorianne is a second Lieutenant, and he painted his “rank and file” on the shoulder of his painters’ coveralls. He says that by volunteering today with the rest of his troop, he gets to show off his leadership training.

Marjorie Calhoun, a custodian at the school and also a 1967 graduate of Roxborough High School, came in on a Saturday to do the job that she usually does, except today with the help of her students and neighbors.

As she returned from her lunch break she chatted with Jim Alturo, a volunteer from Day & Zimmerman. They both admired the freshly cleared garden while preparing to plant young trees.

“You go away and come back a few hours later, and a difference has been made,” Alturo marvels.

“After seeing that, you gotta feel good.”

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