by Erin Moran
When Ruth Seeley, 71, and her husband moved to Philadelphia from the United Kingdom in 1969, she was looking for “gardens and old houses.” “Very shortly after, we decided that Germantown was the neighborhood we wanted to settle in,” she said.
Now, more than four decades since she and her husband moved to Germantown in 1970, Seeley is a dedicated member of the community and was recently an inaugural recipient of the Pillar of the Community, which Germantown United Community Development Corporation awards to residents who have made significant contributions to the community.
According to Germantown United’s website, the award honors “dedicated and steadfast champions for Germantown … [who] embody the values of Germantown United.”
Seeley, who has worked for nonprofits most of her life, was an integral player in the restoration of Vernon Park. When her job at a nonprofit disappeared during the 2009 financial crisis shortly before she had planned to retire, she decided to start doing all the things she wanted to do: watercolor painting, gardening and connecting with the Friends of Vernon Park.
Friends of Vernon Park, she said, had not met with regularity for some time. The park was not kept well and was often dangerous due to a corner store which she said sold beer and was a hub for drug activity. But in 2010, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership was looking for a place to build a rain garden, and Vernon Park was one of their prospects.
“[The project gathered] people from all kinds of different groups, other networks and stakeholders and we all held monthly meetings,” Seeley said. “[It was the] genesis of a revived Friends of Vernon Park. We not only have a rain garden but also a lot of volunteer work. We had the beginnings of new interest in the park.”
Seeley started out as a gardener. She would go to Vernon Park once a week and pull weeds. However, she soon realized that her career experience with nonprofits could help the Friends of Vernon Park. Seeley had experience teaching at Kaimosi Girls High School, a Quaker-run school in Kenya, East Africa, working as an administrator for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and as an assistant to the director of the Friends Council on Education and American Friends Service Committee. She had the work experience necessary to set up a board and run a nonprofit organization. The only difference, she said, was that the Friends of Vernon Park was entirely made up of volunteers.
She eventually used her experience to become president of the Friends of Vernon Park. “My sense is that parks are places that are green oases in sometimes not very wealthy neighborhoods where everyone can go. If there are nice places with benches and places for kids to play, everyone will feel welcome and come and enjoy it. It was our aim to make Vernon Park a green, warm, friendly and safe place again.
“I’ve learned as I’ve gotten involved more directly that Philadelphia Parks and Recreation runs such a network all around the city for people like myself who are friends of parks. They are the most amazing people, and they do it because they love the places, and they love the anchor it makes in the community.”
Vernon Park served as such an anchor for Seeley. After coming to Philadelphia from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom, having such a connected community helped her keep from feeling homesick or lost.
Although she is passionate about making Germantown a better place to live, Seeley and other Germantown residents worry about gentrification. She hopes all Germantown residents work together to improve the neighborhood.
“We want things to be safe,” she said, “but we want to be aware of making it so that everyone who lives here can continue living here because they’ve made the community what it is to this point. My future vision for Germantown is one where the green spaces revitalize the neighborhoods, and it spreads out into new small, locally owned businesses and affordable places for everyone to live. My greatest pleasure is just walking through on an average day and seeing everything that’s going on and people of all backgrounds enjoying Vernon Park.”
Erin Moran is a Temple University journalism student, class of 2018, a features intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer and deputy features editor for the Temple News. For more information, visit germantownunitedcdc.org.