MLK Day of Service is one of the most impactful days of the year in Philly. Citizens volunteer to help refurb schools by painting them, refurbing them, and making small projects like bookshelves. According to their website, MLK day of Service in Philly has completed over 1,800 projects, with over 145,000 volunteers, and 500,000 service hours. It’s a big deal. This year, it was held on January 15.

I wanted a bit more information on the day, so Spruce’s fearless leader Eliza put me in touch with Bria Spivey. When I talked to Bria, I found out about the great work that MLK Day of Service is doing, but I also learned that the real service goes much deeper than what happens on that day. There is a lot of work put in on the back end to make things happen; work that is being done by incredibly talented, intelligent, and passionate people making a difference – people like Bria.

Bria spent a year of service in Philly with City Year from 2014 to 2015. City Year is a national organization that believes that education is what helps kids reach their potential. They deploy corps members to 25+ cities to serve in a variety of functions, mainly as school support and support to students. According to Bria, the Philly City Year team was large, but because of how difficult the work can be, some people end their service early – not Bria though.

While the in-school support role of a City Year AmeriCorps member is essential to student success there is a small but mighty team called the Civic Engagement Team or CE Team which plans, coordinates and executes all the major service events. Bria served on this team as the Communications Coordinator where she enlisted volunteers for all major service events, as well as managed all social media postings for her team. Bria also went above and beyond, managing registration on the largest days of service, including MLK Day. She remembered many of the volunteers by their first names – remarkable, considering over 1,000 people registered for that event.

What was her favorite part of her City Year experience? The kids. “Kids are the best part of MLK Day of Service, they are so, so appreciative, and they want to come to school the next day to see all the beautiful work that has been done.” She said that many of the schools selected tend to have walls that haven’t been painted in decades. After City Year comes in, they are vibrant and full of color, full of little details and custom designs. All in all, Bria called her City Year of service, “the best experience of her life.” She participated this year as a volunteer.

Bria is currently working in the office of Innovation Management at the City of Philadelphia as the Digital Inclusion Program Specialist. She started last year. Prior to that, she earned her Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. Bria keeps in contact with a lot of her professors, she is even conducting some research for one of them.

Bria turned her year of service into a life of service. She was able to leverage her deep dedication to Philadelphia, her intelligence, talent, and passion for change into personal success. Philly is lucky to have her.

From my very first interaction with the Center for Grieving Children, I could tell this was a special place. I had the opportunity to talk to Malia Neal the new Director of Development & Communications at the Center and Jack Small, their Development & Communications Associate last week to learn more about what the Center for Grieving does and the children they serve.

The Center for Grieving Children was founded in 1995 out of a growing need to “help children grieving a death to heal and grow through their grief while strengthening families, communities and professionals’ understanding of how best to respond to their needs.” Neal explained, “Philadelphia as a city is unique and has a complex set of needs when it comes to children suffering the loss of a loved one. We’re working to bridge that gap.”

The Center works directly with school counselors to identify needs and offer free grief groups in schools throughout the city. Aside from ensuring these students are learning the skills they need to grieve in a healthy way, they also make sure students are keeping up with their education. “Schools don’t have resources to help students stay connected to school while grieving — that’s where we can help.” says Neal.

Outside of schools, the Center for Grieving Children offers community support groups across the city for children and their caregivers, as well as training for professionals who interact with these children like teachers or school counselors. “A child needs a community to help them through their grief journey, so it’s important that adults know how to respond.” Neal says.

The Center for Grieving Children is the only organization of its kind in Philadelphia, and they are currently working with over 500 kids directly with multiple groups in nearly 70 schools, and affecting even more through their training services.

When I asked how people could get involved with the Center, Neal suggested people attend their third annual Art Night, on May 4th at DNB First in Old City, hosted by their Young Professionals Board. For the event, “children will create a swing, decorated as a tribute to their experiences in memory of their loved one.” Neal explained. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage with the children and families who are grieving their loved ones and learn more about the Center and it’s mission.

For more information and to learn more about the Center for Grieving Children check out their website at:


Spruce believes that our generation has so much to give to the causes we care about, so we put out the call for area nonprofits to advertise their opportunities to get involved in our newsletter.

Please read on for this month’s opportunities! (Disclaimer: Please note that as an all-volunteer organization, Spruce is not able to vet these organizations or opportunities and encourages you to do your own research.)

ASAP/After School Activities Partnerships

About the Opportunities:

  1. Assistant Club Leader: Looking for an opportunity to connect with Philly youth? Volunteer to help lead an after school Chess, Debate, Drama, or Scrabble Club! No experience is necessary – ASAP staff provides training and ongoing support as you help engage students in exploring their passions. To ensure continuity for youth, ASAP asks that volunteers commit to working with one club a minimum of one hour per week for at least a semester (12-16 weeks).
  2. Debate Judges: Due to the growing popularity of scholastic debate, ASAP is looking for volunteers willing to serve as judges for ASAP’s middle and high school debate matches. More than just determining the winners, the role of a debate judge is to provide feedback to students to help them refine their arguments and to think critically about key issues. No debate experience is necessary to serve as a judge. This is a flexible opportunity – attend a one-hour orientation, then sign up for debates as your schedule permits!
  3. Event Support: Want to volunteer but can’t commit to an ongoing need? ASAP is always looking for caring adults to help large events run smoothly. Volunteers can expect to assist with registration and check-in, handing out snacks, setting up tables and chairs (we regularly have 150-200+ students at our events!),assisting with student transitions between activities, and other miscellaneous tasks. Most events are after school or on the weekends and last 3-8 hours – volunteers can sign up for shifts at longer events.
    1. ASAP Scrabble Winter Classic: Friday, January 19th, 1:00pm-5:30pm at the School District of Philadelphia Headquarters (440 N. Broad St.). This event invites more than 200 students from Scrabble clubs across the city to compete and share their love of Scrabble! We need volunteers to help with tournament set up, dictionary “challenge” checking, and tournament break-down. This is a great opportunity to engage students K-12 in enriching literacy activities.
    2. ASAP Drama Student Masterclass: Thursday, February 8th, 10:00am-8:00pm (shifts available) at the Gershman Y (401 S. Broad St.). This full-day event invites more than 100 youth to participate in a variety of workshops and activities to expand their understanding, skill and technique in the dramatic arts, enhance their cultural and social knowledge, and learn to work effectively with a team of diverse peers. Volunteers will assist with coordination of student transitions, workshop and down-time prep and break down, as well as have an opportunity to participate in workshops alongside the youth.
    3. “In Search of the American Dream” ASAP Drama Showcase: Thursday, March 8th, 1:00pm-8:00pm (shifts available), location TBD. This year, ASAP Drama is piloting a new curriculum titled In Search of the American Dream. Under this theme, students in grades K-12 are reading texts about Class, Immigration, and Gender and will work to translate what they’ve discovered into original devised pieces. These new works will be performed in front of a live audience at the Showcase. Volunteers will assist with coordination and transition of groups, set up/break down, and ushering.

Interested in more information about these opportunities? Contact: Sara Morningstar at

Camp Jamison

About the Opportunity: At Camp Jamison we believe that summer camp can change a child’s life! If you are looking for a fun and exciting way to change the life of a child then come join us for the week at Camp Jamison. Camp Jamison is a one week camping program during July 16th-July 20th for Philadelphia children ages 9-15. We are looking for dedicated and outgoing individuals to take on roles such as cabin counselor, arts and craft specialist, sports specialist, and more!

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact: Jacqueline McDonough at

Coded by Kids

About the Opportunity: Coded by Kids (CbK) teaches web development skills to students ages 5-18 years old using a project-based curriculum taught in rec centers across Philadelphia. CbK is always looking for volunteers that are skilled in basic and advanced web development, good with kids, and enjoy teaching. Classes are taught throughout the year, and volunteers are asked to make at least a 3-month commitment.

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Ross Coley at

Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy

About the Opportunity: Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy in Northeast Philadelphia needs volunteers on an ongoing basis to assist with its therapeutic ridng program for children and adults with disabilities. Volunteers are involved with the care of our wonderful horses and assist with the therapeutic riding lessons. No prior horse experience is necessary. We will train you. Volunteers are needed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings from 5:30-8:30 PM, Wednesday, Thursday & Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. All volunteers must be at least 14 years old and have health insurance. Those over 18 must have PA criminal and child abuse clearances. Orientation and training sessions for new volunteers in on two Saturdays a month from 2 – 4 PM. Please contact our office 215-742-1500 x3 to schedule an orientation. Volunteers are also needed for board positions, fundraising, office work, and maintenance work. Come horse around with us at Pegasus.

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Lynn Green at

The Legacy Exists, Joe Frazier Scholarship Fund

About the Opportunity: We are in the need of ongoing social media assistance and help at our next event; The Legacy Exists, Joe Frazier Scholarship, 3rd Annual Cocktail Fundraiser, March 10, 2017. Penns Landing Caterer, Philadelphia, PA.

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Weatta Frazier Collins at

Youth Mentoring Partnership

About the Opportunity: YMP is excited to launch our #MyMentorShoutout campaign, and we need people to participate to get the word spreading! It is a gratitude campaign to thank and honor our mentors, support positive mentoring for today’s youth, and inspire others. We’re asking you to post a video or photo shoutout honoring your mentor on social media using #MyMentorShoutout to help further the movement.

Questions? Contact Jen Godfrey at

You don’t have to be from Philly to be making a difference in this city – Nick Thompson proves that. After graduating from Binghamton University in 2013, he moved to Philly and has been a force for good ever since. He came to Philadelphia to earn his Masters of Public Health at Drexel University. He aspired to be a physician when he was younger, but was drawn to public health through his love of service and a deep feeling of responsibility to give back.

Nick started working at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in 2015 after receiving his MPH. He specifically works as a Project Management Analyst, ensuring work is effectively completed in a timely fashion on the Epic implementation, so the hospital can do as much good as possible for its patients. However, he believes that making a real difference shouldn’t stop when you leave the office; it is just as, if not more, important to continue to make a difference outside of work too.

Prior to Nick’s work at Jefferson, he was president of the Graduate Student Association at Drexel, where he actively worked to inspire busy (understatement) graduate students to engage in their passions and community causes in Philadelphia. He has also been actively involved with the American Public Health Association (APHA) in their Maternal and Child Health Section. With APHA, he was on point to help create appropriate messaging and make data digestible to the public related to antibiotic resistance and gun violence prevention. In addition, Nick has participated in cooking for the Gift of Life Family House, where transplant recipients spend time and recover with their families. He made families feel more safe and welcome during a time that can feel scary or uncertain. He also volunteered at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and has spent weekends giving food at St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.

Sitting on the grant applicant committee is one of the most important functions of Spruce volunteers as they are the group of people that grade and ultimately select our grantees. Nick has been one of those volunteers for the last two years and plans to continue assisting as long as they need his help.

Some people give back by using their skills to create strategies to help others. Some people give back by becoming an expert in their field and working to effect change through process and hard work. Still, others give their time to improve the lives of individuals by communicating and giving directly to them through volunteering. Nick Thompson does all those things.

Instead of being dragged down by the current negative political climate, he thinks millennials should use that energy to continue to stay involved, give back and stay engaged in what’s going on in the world. Some of Nick’s inspiration and optimism comes from TED Talks – he specifically recommends “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” by Simon Sinek and “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling” by Emilie Wapnick.

By day, Joshua Schwartz is a project manager for TargetX, a higher education technology company; by night (at least some of them), he’s an adjunct professor at two different colleges.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that Joshua is passionate about education: “I am a huge believer in education and life-long learning,” he says. I believe every person, young or old, can learn something new every day – and should equally be offered the opportunity to do so.”

Joshua, now pursuing an Ed.D., started his higher education at Montgomery County Community College as an older adult student, and is particularly inspired by the mission and philosophy of community colleges.

“Even after graduating from Montgomery County Community College I remained involved. I wanted to ensure every person that I could help would receive the same opportunity to a college education that I received,” Joshua explains. “I decided to get involved because I know how life changing a community college can be – and the impact they have not just on a student, but on that students’ family too.”

You could say Joshua puts his money where his mouth is, since he’s donated funds to support student scholarships – or, in some cases, even form them – through both the Montgomery County Community College Foundation and the Schenectady County Community College Foundation.

Joshua also counts the American Cancer Society, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, and the New England Aquarium among causes he supports.

“The American Cancer Society is huge for me,” Joshua says. “I’m a cancer survivor, so I know firsthand the support the ACS offers to survivors and their families.”

Joshua’s support of ACS goes beyond financial contributions. “Back in 2011, I was named the American Cancer Society’s Rookie of the Year for the Northeast PA Region for my contributions in chairing the most successful first-year community college Relay for Life in the country. In a matter of four months, we raised over $28,000 for the ACS. I have lost too many friends and family to cancer, so the ACS holds a very special place in my heart.”

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation also hits home for Joshua.

“As a member of the LBGTQ community, I feel every person deserves to have basic equal rights. This organization has done a lot for the LBGTQ community in advocating and educating individuals, corporations, and even local, state, and federal governments on the importance of ensuring all people are treated equally. I back this organization because I know there’s still so much additional work that needs to be done.”

And the New England Aquarium?

“I walked in as a tourist and fell in love,” Joshua explains. “I could spend hours there (and have), but learning the impact they play on research and the programs they offer in educating our youth inspired me to generously donate to this organization.”

The aquarium also has a lot of penguins, which Joshua happens to love.

“I know it won’t happen, but I secretly hope one day they name a penguin after me,” he jokes.

What’s Joshua’s advice for millennials looking to start giving back, but in search of the right cause for them?

“Remember your roots in life,” he says. “Remember what brought you to be the person you are today — be it your high school, religious institution, or an organization that offered you or your family support. Donate time, resources, or monetary support to organizations that mean something to you – you’ll know in your heart which is the right organization.”

Joshua also recommends paying attention to family and friends’ passions. “If you see a friend or family member posting something on Facebook, or whatever social media outlet, reach out to them. Find out more about their organization, and learn why it matters to them,” Joshua suggests. You may find that it speaks to you, too.

“As millennials, we have the power to make such an amazing impact in our community today, tomorrow, and a year from now,” Joshua says. He encourages our generation to draw on their time, talent, and financial resources to give back now. “The reward is a personal feeling that never gets old.”

Spruce believes that our generation has so much to give to the causes we care about, so we put out the call for area nonprofits to advertise their opportunities to get involved in our newsletter. Please read on for this month’s opportunities! (Disclaimer: Please note that as an all-volunteer organization, Spruce is not able to vet these organizations or opportunities and encourages you to do your own research.)

Girls on the Run Philadelphia

About the Opportunity: Coaching is one of the most rewarding ways to be involved with Girls on the Run. In working directly with a team of 3rd-5th grade girls or 6th-8th grade girls, coaches teach them healthy lifestyle lessons while training them for the culminating Girls on the Run 5K.

Who is a Girls on the Run coach?

Girls on the Run coaches are enthusiastic, dedicated, and positive women of all different backgrounds! Some are athletes and some are not; most have never coached before. All are committed to empowering girls with valuable life lessons. Coaches must have availability on weekday afternoons, twice per week over a 12 week fall or spring season.

What is the commitment?

  • 10-week programs are offered each fall and spring. (The Spring 2018 season will begin on March 5, 2018).
  • Practices are twice per week and last 90 minutes each immediately following the school-day (approx. between 3:00 and 5:00 PM).
  • A team will consist of three to four coaches and teams of 15 – 20 girls between 3rd and 5th grade or 6th and 8th grade.
  • Attendance at one half-day coach training utilizing the GOTR® curriculum.
  • Spring 2018 coach training will take place the following dates and times:
    • Wednesday, February 2 from 5:00 – 9:30 PM, Karabots Pediatric Care Center, 4865 Market Street
    • Saturday, February 10 from 8:30 AM – 1:00 PM, Norwood Fontbonne Academy, 8900 Norwood Avenue
    • Tuesday, February 12 from 5:00 – 9:30 PM, Karabots Pediatric Care Center, 4865 Market Street
    • Thursday, March 1 from 5:00 – 9:30 PM, Exude, 325 Chestnut Street, Suite 1000
    • CPR/First Aid Certification offered Saturday, September 16 from 2:00-4:00 PM, Norwood Fontbonne Academy, 8900 Norwood Avenue
  • Attendance at one in-person coach training session is mandatory.
  • Meeting with co-coaches and school/program site liaison.
  • CPR Training required for head coaches plus one additional coach at each site.
  • Attendance at practices twice per week during the 12-week season.
  • Weekly lesson prep time.
  • Attendance at the end of season Girls on the Run 5K.
  • Commitment and consistency is critical to the success of the GOTR program!
  • All coaches must plan to attend all practices, two days per week for the duration of the 10-week season.

Apply to become a coach for the Spring 2018 Season!

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Carrie Peck, Program Coordinator, at

Sky Community Partners. Inc.

About the opportunity: Sky Community Partners is a local non-profit that provide​s​ programs to underserved, low income families and individuals by collaborating with high-performing organizations to increase educational opportunities, increase health awareness and access, and improve outcomes for at-risk communities in Philadelphia.​ We are often looking for volunteers to support our outreach efforts throughout the year: ​

    • Attending community events where we provide information about or organization
    • Helping to facilitate workshops for Parents/Students
    • Volunteering at one of our major events
      • December- Annual Fundraiser/Awards Ceremony
      • April- Annual 5K & Health Fair in South Philadelphia

​​ Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact ​Portia Fullard; at

Keep Philadelphia Beautiful

About the opportunity: In January of 2015, KPB launched a volunteer educator program – through which we train and then schedule amazing volunteers to give presentations in schools throughout Philadelphia on recycling, litter, why community beautification matters and how to take action in our neighborhoods. This year alone, we are on track to reach 4700 young Philadelphians with our message of environmental stewardship. Our interactive workshops were developed in partnership with the School District and the Philadelphia Streets Department.

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Michelle Feldman at at 215-854-4000.

Institute for the Development of African American Youth

About the opportunity: We are looking for someone to assist in our Math and English SAT Prep Classes. We are also looking for workshop opportunities in Career Development, College Assess, Health, STEAM.

Interested in more information about this opportunity? Contact Avery Davis at, program director for Main College Bound Program

On a Monday evening, I walked into The Attic Youth Center – and into a bustle of about 30 chatting teens, grabbing dinner and then sitting down to catch up with each other. There was a spirit of home and family here that exists throughout the Attic, which works to create “opportunities for LGBTQ youth to develop into healthy, independent, civic-minded adults within a safe and supportive community, and promotes acceptance of LGBTQ youth in society.”

“The Attic is first and foremost a space for LGBTQ youth to get to know themselves and feel comfortable,” says Nikele Riek, LSW, the Attic’s development associate. Nikele is generously giving some of their time tonight to talk to me about the success of The Attic’s music therapy group, a new program focused on creative expression and personal storytelling.

Each year, the Spruce Foundation awards a $5,000 grant to a nonprofit supporting Philly youth in the LGBTQ space, and Spruce’s most recent LGBTQ grant went to the Attic to start the music therapy program. Nikele reports that it’s a favorite for the teens the Attic serves, consistently filling the room and giving the youth the chance to both be creative, and also just be themselves.
The music therapy program is part of The Attic’s health and wellness programming, which is in turn part of its Life Skills programming.

In addition to health and wellness, Life Skills programs provide services like homelessness prevention and remediation, academic achievement, and workforce readiness. For example, The Attic offers life coaching, where coaches meet with youth individually to discuss career possibilities, develop resumes, apply for financial aid, search for jobs, and practice interviews. The Attic also helps ensure that students understand graduation requirements, works with students and their schools to address issues such as bullying, and arranges to take students on college tours each year.

The Attic also offers paid internship opportunities for youth.

“Our THRIVE program, for example, offers youth paid internships at the Attic focused on outreach and programming around HIV prevention,” Nikele explains. “One area our current interns are focused on is how mental health plays a role risk-taking behavior.”

The Attic also places youth in external internships. Recent partners include Oyster House and Davio’s. External partners typically cover the cost of these internships, but The Attic is working to get funding that would allow it to cover the cost of placing youth in small businesses that may not be able to support the cost of an intern.

In addition to its Life Skills programming, the Attic offers mental health counseling, where Attic therapists help individuals, couples, and families with issues including coming out, problems at school, gender questions, depression, anxiety, relationships, stress management, anger management, and conflicts with friends or family. The Attic draws on grants to provide mental health counseling at no cost.

Finally, the Bryson Institute of the Attic Youth Center offers trainings to other organizations on best practices for working with LGBTQ individuals. The Bryson Institute brings these trainings to social service and health care providers, faith communities, schools, and other organizations. “To make all of Philadelphia a safe and inclusive city for LGBTQ youth, we’re trying to help people move from ‘tolerance’ to being accepting and welcoming,” Nikele explains.

For Sprucers interested in getting involved with the Attic and its mission, Nikele outlines several ways to pitch in and help.

First, the Attic looks for groups to volunteer to cook and serve dinner for approximately 30-35 youth each weekday evening. Volunteers need to provide the food and can either cook it in advance or make use of the Attic’s full kitchen. Dinner is served at 5:15 p.m. (The volunteer groups also handle the clean-up.) There are no dietary restrictions and this opportunity gives volunteer groups the opportunity to interact a bit with the youth the Attic serves.

Second, the Attic is currently running a winter supply drive, and is accepting donations of new hats, new gloves, new socks, new scarves, and new or gently-used coats. The winter supply drive will end in February.

Finally, the Attic runs a hygiene supply drive on an ongoing basis, and accepts donations such as travel-sized toiletries, menstrual products, and more.

For more information on the Attic, or to volunteer for one of these opportunities, please contact Nikele at

This month we sat down with Casey McGuigan, a corporate accountant for Advanced Depositions and Trial Technologies. Casey is a Philly girl through and through — she was born and grew up in northeast Philadelphia, went to Drexel for college, and now lives in South Philadelphia.

When she’s not working, Casey can most often be found volunteering for her favorite local organization, PAWS. PAWS is Philadelphia’s largest animal rescue partner with a mission of making Philadelphia a no-kill city where every healthy and treatable pet is guaranteed a home. They pull at-risk animals out of the city’s shelter and place them in loving adoptive and foster homes. Last year they rescued and adopted out over 3,000 animals while serving another 33,000 at their low cost clinics.

Casey started volunteering and giving to PAWS in 2014. “Working in finance can be boring at times so having something I’m passionate about to dedicate some of my free time to makes my life more fulfilling.” She also understands the benefits of giving back financially and encourages others to give back too. This year for her 30th birthday she asked everyone who was planning to give her a gift to make a donation to PAWS instead. “It made me so happy receiving cards and emails that week letting me know that people were donating in my name to help a mission that I’m so passionate about.”

Throughout her time at PAWS Casey has learned that no donation amount is too small. “I think a lot of the time people think that they can’t do enough so they do nothing at all. They forget that even small donations quickly add up. Something as small as $10 will vaccinate and animal waiting for adoption, $25 will pay for an animal to be spayed or neutered, and $50 will pay to house and shelter an animal for a full week.”

So what is Casey’s advice for getting involved? “Non-profits are able to run because they rely heavily on donations and volunteers. No amount of time or money that you are able to donate is too small. Knowing that you are helping to make Philadelphia a better city in any way will bring you more than you are actually giving. If everyone that does nothing because they don’t think it’s enough just did something to help or donated a small amount, this city would be a much better place in a lot of ways!”

Among the houses of West Philadelphia is a green, blooming garden, the namesake of the West Philly based arts non-profit Al-Bustan (“the garden” in Arabic) Seeds of Culture that presents and teaches Arab culture through the arts and language. It serves as a meeting place, a grove to brainstorm, and part of the home of Al-Bustan’s dynamic Executive Director Hazami Sayed. The garden office extends into a beautiful basement space, filled with books, artifacts, and pieces of art from Philadelphia students Sayed has mentored through the years; and finally, countless miniature pieces of art from the installation I came here to discuss: An Immigrant Alphabet. Below is the interview I had with Hazami Sayed, executive director of Al-Bustan, and Diana Misdary, Al-Bustan’s public art project manager.*

Where did the idea of the alphabet come from?
Hazami Sayed: The alphabet idea started with Wendy Ewald, an artist I had started following years before. She had done similar projects involving alphabets and disenfranchised youth as part of a project called American Alphabets.

How did you choose Northeast high school to feature?
HS: Al-Bustan has a longstanding partnership with Northeast High School over the past ten years. As the largest and most ethnically diverse public school in Philadelphia, NEHS has a significant number of students of Arab heritage, including Palestinian-Americans who were born here and immigrants from Iraqi, Syria, and Sudan who came here as refugees. By offering arts-based programming in and out of the school day, we have built relationships with many teachers and students–some of whom we continue to mentor. At the request of the administration, we also supported a Muslim Girls Culture Club–a few of the girls in the club are actually featured in An Immigrant Alphabet.

Was Northeast High administration on board with the project?
HS: Since we were already there during the school day with Al-Bustan teaching artists working with Dr. Jay Fluellen’s class three days per week, the administration and faculty were very accommodating. They allowed us to pull students out of some classes and adjust their schedule during the 4 weeks of Wendy’s residency at the school.

How did you select the students to participate in the alphabet project?
HS: The selection process started out with an application. Part of the application was light criteria around immigration, it had to have impacted their lives in some way. Applicants did not have to be immigrants, though all the students or their parents were immigrants. We asked the students to tell us about themselves. We also asked them why they wanted to participate in the project. We felt it was important to select students who showed a genuine desire to participate, since this would be a time investment for them.

What were some of the reasons the students were interested?
HS: Some students want to tell their story, but others were interested in the technical and artistic aspects of the project. Joseph was interested in the photography aspect. He’s currently working as a photographer. You can see his hands in the letter G for Greencard.

Can you describe some of the other letters and their participants?
Diana Misdary: Doha is an Iraqi who fled her country during the war, living in Syria till she came with her family to America as refugees. She started out in Kentucky, which she found to be much different than Philadelphia. There weren’t any outsiders in Kentucky. When she came to the Northeast, she started out as an ESL student. She was in gen-ed by the time she was a senior, her progression was so remarkable. You can see her in letter T for trust. Rushana is another, who fled her home country Tajikstan as her mother was a journalist critical of the government. After living in Turkey for several years, Rushana and her 3 siblings and mother were able to get refugee status in America. You can see her in the letter L for leave.

Did you face any challenges getting the installation hung?
DM: We had a very smooth, and pleasant experience with the City of Philadelphia in getting this up. The City and the Mayor’s Office have been very receptive to the installation, they even put some of our previous student artwork from our camps and workshops in the foyer of the mayor’s office.

Were there any other locations considered?
DM: We were considering 30th Street Station for a brief time, then Andrew Stober of University City District suggested we look at the Municipal Services Building. We approached the Director of Public Art Margot Berg at the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy who responded quickly with interest and enthusiasm, enabling us to do this as a temporary public art installation.

What has the response been from the public? What are the conversations you’ve had with onlookers at the installation?
DM: Mostly very positive. I’ve had conversations with people who didn’t realize how much their own lives were impacted by immigration and refugees, and also people who are keenly aware. I had a very meaningful conversation with a descendant of Holocaust survivors about forced assimilation, and about losing who you were before to assimilate here. In 2017, it probably shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way it’s always been. It has served as a reminder that we need to resist the current political climate.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from doing this work?
HS: Invest the time in getting to know people.

An Immigrant Alphabet installation will be on display at the Municipal Services Building through the end of the year. Join Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in active participation at the installation, and take the active participation survey on their website.

*The interviews with Hazami Sayed and Diana Misdary occurred at separate times, and these answers are condensed for length and clarity.