PA Heart & Soul

Finding common ground to shape communities


across PA


stories and other data
put into action

PA Heart & Soul is a resident-led planning initiative that finds common ground through gathering stories, having conversations, and getting people more involved in co-creating the future of their community. The key to equitable community development is learning what matters most to the people who live there. Through the American Planning Association award-winning PA Heart & Soul program, communities become more connected, creative, and strong.

It all began in 2015, when we partnered with Community Heart & Soul (formerly the Orton Family Foundation) to bring their field-tested model to Pennsylvania communities. We were excited to adopt this proven process that empowers people to shape the future of their communities by creating a shared sense of belonging and ultimately strengthening social, cultural, and economic vibrancy.

Heart of Williamsport volunteers hold up a newspaper featuring their recent heart & soul summit.

Meet the Communities

5 Ways PA Heart & Soul Transforms Communities

1. Emerging new leaders and volunteers

In Williamsport (pop. 28,000), after speaking out about the loss of a local supermarket and lack of a safe place to gather and socialize, several residents stepped up and led the creation of a community garden. This garden is now a hub for sharing information and resources. Environmental organizations, local businesses and a corps of volunteers provide fresh vegetables to the neighborhood while parents and children tend the space together and garden experts mentor others. The neighborhood has been transformed through the leadership of those who know it best.

2. Building trust

The diverse municipality of Upper Chichester (pop. 17,000) had a high turnout at the community forums to kick off PA Heart & Soul. A pastor of a church of mostly African American members said his congregants “are starting to feel as though community leaders are finally hearing their concerns and that’s inspiring them to get more involved.”Like other Heart & Soul communities, people who had not traveled in the same circles came together, trusted each other, and strengthened bonds—based on a shared love of place and the desire to make it better.

3. Energizing downtown areas

Among the things the residents of Meadville (pop. 13,000) wanted most was to improve their city’s built environment, especially in the downtown area. My Meadville, as this Heart & Soul project is named, partnered with city government to update zoning so that historic preservation and increased walkability were prioritized. A mural brightened the area, a new coffee shop opened and The Meadville Teen Lounge was maintained. Economic opportunities grew thanks to the community efforts of My Meadville.

4. Celebrating pride

Cameron County (pop. 4,600) has experienced the rise and fall of multiple industries like many other rural areas. Our community-building project began to enhance the existing sense of pride in what makes the county so special—and it turns out that people were eager to tell their stories. Residents use #CamCoProud to share what they love about the county. This humanities-based approach highlights the great things that only Cameron County can offer—and brings a pride-filled perspective to new opportunities. Heart & Soul inspired residents to think in terms of their county’s value and possibilities.

5. Honoring history & culture

When residents share their stories, the rich history of a place can be rediscovered or uncovered. That was the case when the Heart & Soul team in Greater Carlisle (pop. 67,000) heard from a resident about a long abandoned African American church built by her grandfather around 1870. The story rallied the community to protect and preserve the church along with the nearby cemetery, where her grandfather’s gravesite is located along with several Civil War veterans. Now the site is on the National Register of Historic Places and a door has been opened to create dialogue about the African American history in the community.

Hearing from Communities

“The story gathering was literally the first time people had ever been asked what they need and what their town needs. We never really ask ourselves and our neighbors that. The process really helped people develop a vision for the town.”

- Meadville resident

"As a planner having done community engagement for years, this turns everything on its head. It starts with the people and what the people want and what matters most to them and the projects follow from that."

- Alice Trowbridge, former Community Heart & Soul Project Coordinator for Heart of Williamsport and Community Heart & Soul Coach

“We’re excited by the energy and momentum we’re now seeing. Community Heart & Soul is helping us chart a course for a bright and prosperous future that involves everyone.”

- Barbara Kelley, Upper Chichester

“One of the strengths of the project is bringing storytelling to the process, and storytelling is really powerful in so many ways—building local pride, for people to feel heard.”

- PA resident


Thank you to our partners!

You can help shape your community’s future! If you want to foster community-led change in your home, reach out to us at

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