Little Friends—Great Possibilities

Education // August 22, 2018

The Strategic Blueprint 2018-2020 was introduced in the Winter 2017 Newsletter and outlines three interlocking strategic priorities: to create and maintain safe and attractive infrastructure, provide a wide range of engagement opportunities for the public, and foster an ecologically diverse and functional habitat. The spring issue of the newsletter outlined five priority projects FOW is planning to complete as part of the Sustainable Trails Initiative (STI), an infrastructure program. The following article from the summer issue continues the series with a focus on an engagement program.

Engaging Future Park Stewards

FOW’s newest engagement opportunity – Little Friends of the Wissahickon – was born out of FOW’s Good Night Wissahickon Valley Park, a board book published in 2016 that takes preschoolers and their parents on an engaging and colorful hike through the park. The book received overwhelming positive feedback. “If kids could get so excited about the park on paper, imagine what could be achieved if they experienced it in person,” said Executive Director Maura McCarthy.

Philadelphia has one of the greatest park systems in the country, yet many residents are either unaware of or disconnected from our public green spaces. The need to address this problem, coupled with children’s enthusiastic response to Good Night Wissahickon, led to the creation of the Little Friends of the Wissahickon. The goal of the program is twofold: to introduce Philadelphia’s public school kindergartners and first graders to Wissahickon Valley Park and inspire them to explore and experience the wilderness in their own city. It is being conducted in advance of a deeper consultant analysis of barriers to community engagement in Philadelphia’s public parks, and outcomes from the program will inform this research and future programming.

FOW was excited to partner with four local elementary schools–John Story Jenks School, Anna B. Day School, Anna L. Lingelbach School, and John B. Kelly School – to launch the pilot program this past spring. Little Friends features Wissahickon-themed natural science activities, using Good Night Wissahickon and the FOW trail map as visual guided in conjunction with an in-school program and a field trip to the park. Understanding the challenges that most public schools face when going on a field trip, FOW provides transportation and partners with the Wissahickon Environmental Center (WEC) to provide the educational programming free of charge.

Sharing the park’s treasures with children presents an opportunity to also reach their families –the students bring the information home, where parents, siblings, and extended family may be encouraged to take advantage of this amazing asset at their disposal and visit the park on their own.

Designed to start families on their own journey of discovery of the natural world together, the program also offers important physical and emotional benefits. Introducing children to natural spaces and instilling in them knowledge about, appreciation of, and respect for the planet, creates citizens who are engaged in the preservation of environmental resources. It is FOW’s hope that Little Friends is helping build the next generation of stewards in the Wissahickon Valley.

Initial reviews from the first public school classes to participate in the program indicate that this hope may already be a reality. One kindergarten teacher from the Lingelbach School thanked FOW for the Tree House tour and trail walk her students took, noting that “We had a wonderful time. The kids can’t stop talking about the next time they go with their parents.”

Engaging Partners

FOW believes that strong partnerships strengthen the park’s infrastructure and capital resources, which increases the impact of the organization’s work. The implementation of Little Friends would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and support of multiple partners–both new and existing–especially the School District of Philadelphia. Thanks to Little Friends, FOW has proudly become an official Philadelphia Public School Partner and looks forward to furthering its relationship with local schools for volunteer service in the park.

FOW’s partnership with the WEC and the completion of a full-scale restoration of the Tree House in 2015 paved the way for programs such as Little Friends. As one of three environmental education centers operated by the City of Philadelphia in watershed parks, the WEC is a key means of communication with children and families about the importance of wildlife and habitat in the Wissahickon. Its location at the intersection of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties also serves as an important visitor access point. The restoration project, with the addition of a green roof to reduce the building’s impact on the park’s sensitive habitat, contributed to making WEC a welcoming and dynamic place to engage the community.

Another significant FOW improvement project will also positively impact the area surrounding the WEC. The nearly-completed first phase of the unique Green Stormwater Infrastructure project in Andorra, takes a watershed approach to mitigating damage from uncontrolled surface stormwater flows originating from Northwestern Avenue. It will greatly decrease sedimentation that flows into the Wissahikon Creek, greatly increase the quality of the day-use area of the WEC and adjacent trails, and provide additional outdoor educational opportunities for visitors to the Andorra Natural Area.

The seed money for the Little Friends program was provided by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program’s initial success is due in large part to contributions made to the Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which will help fund the program in the future.

A gift to FOW earmarked for the Little Friends of the Wissahickon can provide businesses with a substantial tax credit while helping secure funding for the program’s continuation in the fall 2018 and spring 2019 school semesters, and possibly beyond. A company can receive Pennsylvania state tax credits equal to 75 percent of its contribution(s) up to a maximum of $750,000 per taxable year, and this can be increased to 90 percent of the contribution if a company agrees to support the same amount for two consecutive years.

For teachers who would like to connect their schools with the Little Friends program, or for individuals or companies interested in sponsoring a school, please contact FOW Development Director Sarah Marley at marley@fow.org.