By Karen Price
The PA Heart & Soul journey emphasizes playing the long game, and both the work and impact of the program carry on to this day for a number of communities who’ve completed the official process.
It’s evident in the creation of award-winning public spaces, the implementation of projects identified as important to the community, the continued involvement of volunteers and even in the election of former volunteers to local public offices.
“The biggest thing, for me, is seeing the level of community engagement increasing,” Upper Chichester township manager George Needles said. “One of the things we were struggling with was apathy. There was a real sense of loss of pride in the community, but we’re seeing that come back through this process. People are taking pride in their community, and it’s essential that we continue to perform, as well, because we owe it to (the residents) to show them we can do some of the things they’ve asked for, so they can buy into the dream.”
PA Heart & Soul is a humanities-based approach to community and economic development centered on the Community Heart & Soul® model. Upper Chichester started the four-phase process in 2018 and received their official designation as a PA Heart & Soul community last spring. The Community Report developed by the project team is an interactive document now being shared throughout the community, and features the seven value statements as the starting point for planning projects, activities and actions.
One of those projects identified as a community priority is building the community’s first library ever to be part of the Delaware County Library System. Fundraising is slow going, Needles said, but the preliminary design work is done. The township has taken over management of the construction and will be repurposing an old firehouse as the library’s home.
“We’re planning for this to be our key civic piece in our town center area,” he said.
In addition to adopting the value statements created through the Heart & Soul process, Needles said, the township is committed to continuing to seek out residents’ input through surveys, town halls, public meetings and discussions throughout the 13 different planning districts they identified.
“(We want to ensure our) that the investments we’re making are based off the values of the community and have been put through additional steps for the community to vet them and say that yes, this is what we want,” he said.
One of the other projects that’s ongoing in Upper Chichester are cleanup days. Recent events have drawn participation and support from local churches, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Rotary Club, the township parks and recreation department and even local state representative Carol Kazeem.
“We’re hoping in the long run those cleanup events will spur even more groups to adopt another little part of the town and clean up that area,” said Lauren Aaron, who was a member of the Heart & Soul leadership team.
On the other side of the state, Meadville was one of the pilot communities for Heart & Soul in Pennsylvania and actively engaged in the process from 2015 through 2019. One of their community actions identified through the process included developing neighborhood hubs, and one of their community values is inclusion. Both are evident in the recently-completed Arc Community Greenspace, which was recognized by the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Planning Association as a “2023 Great Transformation.” The project took a blighted property and building in disrepair and turned it into a public, accessible gathering space adjacent to where individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities receive services through The Arc Crawford County.
“It’s really uplifting on all levels,” said local artist Amara Geffen, who painted the “Bloom Where You’re Planted” mural on the site. “I think the most heartwarming part to me is to see people using the site casually and using it for the events that we hold. And the events are always free and open to the public. They’re not political; they’re arts engagement, family-friendly events. We did a square dancing night, and we had a woman from Erie who does fire dancing and hula hoop and she taught hula hoop. And the Arc staff has gotten really good about bringing clients to the events, which was always the hope.”
Meadville is also just one of the communities where former PA Heart & Soul project managers and volunteers have made their involvement more formal by running for – and winning – public office. Former My Meadville project manager Autumn Vogel now serves on city council, My Meadville team member Larry McKnight is currently deputy mayor, Carbondale Heart & Soul team member Michele Bannon was recently elected mayor of Carbondale, and former Cameron County Heart & Soul project manager Jessica Herzing was recently elected county commissioner.
“The years I spent immersed in my community through the Community Heart and Soul process were genuinely inspiring,” Herzing said of her decision to run for public office. “When the chance to run for commissioner arose, it felt like the natural progression to further advocate for our shared community values and amplify residents’ calls to action.”
Several members of the core PA Heart & Soul team in Upper Chichester are now in the process of creating their own nonprofit in order to continue the community outreach.
“With the group that has stuck around, what’s cool is that we have a diverse group and we all have been able to work together and use our different talents in the way that’s most useful for the whole group,” said Aisha Hyson, a Heart & Soul volunteer who recently accepted a job with Upper Chichester township and is working to expand the parks and recreation department.
Needles said as township leaders and officials, they feel they owe it to the residents who worked so hard to develop the Community Report and lend their time and talents to the town.
“That motivates us,” he said. “We don’t want people to get apathetic again or say, ‘This is a place that doesn’t do anything for me.’ We’ve seen people like Lauren and Aisha and families who come to these events and give their time to helping get things off the ground. We’ve seen a lot more community groups take a larger role in a lot of these events that we used to do, or coming to us about trying to do new things. That’s what we’re looking for. We wanted a sense of community and community engagement, and I feel like it’s really starting to take hold. We owe that to the Heart & Soul process and the Heart & Soul group because they’re the ones who engaged all these people and got them excited again.”