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The Garden Whisperer

One woman engages her community with an award-winning garden

While most people are still catching extra hours of sleep on Saturday mornings, Sheila Washington is already up and prepping the garden at the Haddington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. As the President of the Friends of the Haddington Library, Washington organizes volunteers to revitalize the acre and a quarter of land that the library sits on, and transform it into a garden it is now filled with roses, azaleas and lilacs. The garden became the pride of the neighborhood when it was recognized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with the Community Greening Honoree Award in 2011.


When Washington first joined the organization in 2008, she had no idea of how much change she could effect. The Library was on the brink of closure due to budget cuts, but Washington along with other key members of the community, were  able to keep the Library open through fundraising, and engaging volunteers in the process of transforming the look of the space. They also created Tea Café, an after school program that provides a safe space for  children from 7-16 years-old to do their homework, play games and engage in anti-bullying activities. 

Admittedly, maintaining a garden is not easy, but Washington continues to be inspired and motivated by the children who lend a hand and neighborhood residents that take what they learn from working in the library garden and use the skills to create their own gardens. “It really makes you feel good that you’re helping something that really helps so many people,” says Washington.

Other advocates at the library are quick to praise Washington. “Sheila is persistent, reliable and persistent. Yes, I did mean to say that twice,” Rebekeah Ray says of Washington. Washington secures donations to ensure free snacks and art supplies for the children while also applying for grants and testifying at city council meetings to advocate library support. “She’s more than a volunteer,” says Haddington branch manager Frank Bonifante. “The Friends are really library activists.”

To learn more about Friends of Haddington Branch, and donate supplies check them out here