Ogden, Twin Oaks, Boothwyn — these Pennsylvania neighborhoods are distinctive enough that some of their residents are not even aware that they are all part of Upper Chichester township (Delaware County.) Judy Stang, an Upper Chichester Heart & Soul volunteer, recently found herself having to explain to skeptical students at a Chichester High School job fair that they were indeed part of the community.
“We educated those students,” said Stang, shaking her head. “That’s why we need Heart and Soul, to get people in the community to understand that they belong.”
Upper Chichester Heart & Soul is a local organization supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council using the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart & Soul method of civic engagement. It has a grassroots, humanities-based approach, looking to residents to identify their own needs and values rather than receiving something prescriptive from others.
Carefully listening to the stories and ideas of residents is key to the process. Across the country, Heart & Soul communities are bringing people together, building connections and partnerships, with needed investment and growth in tow.
Sometimes, the stories themselves yield surprises. In Mt. Holly Springs, near Carlisle, an historic African American church was discovered by Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul volunteers during the story-gathering process, leading to a headline-grabbing preservation effort that has rallied the community together.
Uncovering that lost history was made possible through deliberate efforts to bring all voices to the table, something especially important in diverse communities like Upper Chichester.
“I think there could be some surprises because we’re going to be interviewing so many people,” said David Schreiber, a 14 year resident and Heart & Soul volunteer. “Every group has something to contribute, its own unique culture and heritage.”
So far Upper Chichester Heart & Soul has held community forums, a career fair, and workshops. As it moves into the next phase of the process a team of trained volunteers will begin to collect stories. Although the groundwork is just being laid, volunteers are already seeing momentum.
“I’ve seen people that have participated in the program thus far get excited by what they’re seeing,” said Reverend William M. Irons Jr. of St. Matthew CME Church. “They tell another person about what’s going on and another.”
Hannah Hinkle, a library assistant at the Upper Chichester Library, is also optimistic.
“It’s going to revitalize the town,” she said. “We’re on the right path with that –- it’s exciting.”
Residents are stepping up to help from all areas the township, drawn together by their shared love of their community.
Agnes Tillery and Diane Henson are volunteers living in the neighborhood of Twin Oaks and have been friends for 74 years. They were together 1st through 12th grade, graduating in the first class of the Chichester Senior High School in 1963.
“We love Upper Chi, that’s why we joined Heart and Soul,” said Tillery. “We want to make sure that our community is involved.”
“And what we can do to help,” added Henson.
Having taken on the role as chairman of Upper Chichester Heart & Soul, Judy Stang is not shy about admitting that the process is a lot of work, especially in a world with so many competing distractions — but she sees change.
“We have become such a society of go in, shut the door, get on your cell phone… but not get out and start to talk to neighbors,” said Stang. “Now people are starting to talk to each other.”
A recent Heart & Soul event called “A Real Conversation About the Future of Upper Chichester” put an exclamation point on community networking. A facilitator mixed the residents up into small groups and tasked them with answering questions on poster papers affixed to the walls of the municipal building conference room.
“What would you miss in Upper Chi if it wasn’t here?” one poster asked. “If you could have one wish for this community, what would it be?” asked another.
As they moved from poster to poster, residents in the small, diverse groups opened up and shared their hopes and dreams for Upper Chichester with those they might not normally speak to — and they listened to each other.
Reverend Irons says the members of his mostly African American church are starting to feel as though community leaders are finally hearing their concerns and that’s inspiring them to get more involved.
“I love that people want to participate and have a voice,” said Irons. “It’s really about empowering people — when people are empowered then they really will pick the ball up, so to speak, and run with it.”