Lending a Hand

Library activist engages her community
with an award-winning garden

Sheila Washington joined Friends of the Haddington Library after protesting to save it from closure in 2008. | Photo by Jared Gruenwald

On a typical Saturday morning, Sheila Washington can be found in the garden at the Haddington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, watering flowers and teaching children about caring for plants. The garden opened in 2009 with a few rose bushes to beautify the neighborhood library, seated on top of a hill. As the President of the Friends of the Haddington Library, Washington organized volunteers to revitalize the acre and a quarter of land that the library sits on, and 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.

The 61-year-old retired bookkeeper joined the Friends organization after protesting to save the Haddington branch from closure due to budget cuts in 2008. The library remained open and Washington and the Friends have been supporting it through fundraisers, organizing volunteers to help in the garden, and community services such as Teen Café, an after school program where children ages 7 to 16 can work on homework and play games, as well as participate in educational and anti-bullying activities.

Washington concedes that maintaining a garden is not easy, but she adds that seeing children lend a hand in the garden and inspire the neighborhood residents to plant flowers in their own yard is what keeps her motivated. “It really makes you feel good that you’re helping something that really helps so many people,” she says.

When Erica Smith Fichman, TreePhilly Program Manager at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, was looking for community members to partner with to set up their free tree giveaway program, Washington was recommended by a Parks and Recreation staff member. The dedicated library volunteer was up for the task and has helped with TreePhilly for four seasons since 2012, giving away a total of 466 trees in the Haddington and Overbrook communities.

“At the events, I always put [Washington] right up front at registration so she can be the friendly face that people see as soon as they come to the event,” Smith Fichman says.

Rebekah Ray, former librarian at the Haddington Library, has worked with Washington since May 2011, running community events and educational programs at Teen Café. “Sheila is persistent, reliable and persistent. Yes, I did mean to say that twice,” Ray says, smiling. 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.”

Before retiring, Washington had lived as far as California and Texas, and yet found herself returning to her childhood neighborhood, choosing a house next to the library. “By traveling the country, you really appreciate Philadelphia,” says Washington, characterizing Philadelphia as a sophisticated, well-read city that cares for its libraries.

Washington encourages any retirees or anybody not working to volunteer at their local libraries. “Meet your neighbors. Help out,” she says. “It really is worthwhile.”