By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “Oasis” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia. Instead, terms like “concrete” and “urban jungle” seem better descriptors.
But today, if you drive down Lancaster Avenue too fast, you may miss the small structure with a mosaic front that houses a nature sanctuary in the middle of the city.
“The area is called Overbrook,” says Jerome Shabazz, “and I asked– where are the streams, where are the brooks?”
A former longtime employee of the Philadelphia Water Department, Shabazz is now executive director of the Overbrook Art and Environmental Education Center.
The nonprofit organization began in 1998, embedding environment and science education programs in schools. Then, in 2006, Shabazz says he wanted to create an urban environmental center where he could make nature and science accessible to under-served communities. Now it’s home is in the middle of Overbrook, near 61st Street and Lancaster Avenue.
“It was a brownfield site,” Shabazz recalls. “It was abandoned and dilapidated, it had about 20 tons of trash on it.” But he says that he and his board of directors were not deterred.
“As an organization we were teaching people how to transform schools and communities,” he says. “We saw this as a great demonstration project.”
Hear the extended interview with Jerome Shabazz in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 20:17)…
Shabazz says the group brought in the US Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the land, which once served as a quarry.
Today, the Overbrook Center is eco-friendly, with stormwater systems, orchard trees, a greenhouse, and more, in 45,000 square feet of space.
“We have a beautiful tapestry of expanded greenspace, stormwater collection, and a variety of integrated science projects that we do that are built into our facility,” says Shabazz.
Overbrook Center also offers courses on art, wellness, nutrition, environmental sustainability, and physical health. It has a kitchen where they offer cooking classes, and they’ll soon open a café.
And this nonprofit offers a great perk: free, healthy food.
“We grow healthy vegetables and fruits and we give them away to our neighbors,” says Shabazz.
In 2013 the center launched “Prescriptions for Better Health,” connecting education centers with medical providers to both teach nutrition and provide health screenings. The program kicked off in October, offering free testing, vegan foods, and wellness education.
“The idea was to get people thinking about how they can engage in better health,” he says. “In this community we have high instances of diabetes and hypertension and obesity, and it requires a great deal of participation from the patient to stay healthy.”
Shabazz says his love for nature and the environment comes from his southern-born parents, who loved agriculture and green spaces. Through the Overbrook Center, he says, he gets to share it with thousands of area residents.
“We try to inspire people to think: the same way you were able to grow that plant or that tree is the same way you can restore your environment, your life, your home, your neighborhood.”
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