The Hope Gardener: Volunteer cultivates youth, garden at homeless shelter

photo by Stephen DyerFor 77-year-old Margaret Guthrie, the key to success and longevity is all about perspective. “I still think I’m 18,” she says, laughing. “I wake up and I look in the mirror and I say, ‘Who the hell is that old hag?’ But I stay interested. I’m always curious about something or someone. … If you keep your eyes open to see all that’s going on around you, it’s hard to grow old.” 

At the Hope Garden at Stenton Family Manor in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia’s first production and education garden on the grounds of a homeless shelter, Guthrie has been volunteering at least once a week since 2012, when she became a board member of the Weavers Way Community Programs. The Hope Garden was founded by the co-op in 2009.

Robert Harrison is the executive director of Stenton Family Manor, and has worked with Guthrie for the past two years. “Margaret Guthrie came straight out of heaven,” he says. “She doesn’t stop giving and she always uses the word ‘we’ which is so important to us. When Margaret is here, she is part of the family.” 

Since working with Guthrie, Harrison has watched her transform the atmosphere and landscape of the shelter. At Stenton Family Manor, Guthrie tends to garden maintenance and participates in various programs, especially the children’s Garden Club. As one of the largest emergency housing facilities for homeless families in Philadelphia, Stenton Family Manor can house up to 150 children. Using the garden’s harvest for the shelter’s meal preparation, the Hope Garden serves as a resource for residents to learn about sustainable farming and cooking with fresh herbs and vegetables, a practice to which Guthrie feels strongly about. An avid home gardener herself, Guthrie has published eight cookbooks. She believes social progress starts with proper nutrition, and finds joy in empowering the youth at Stenton Family Manor to take ownership of their own health and wellness.

“Watching her with the children in the garden at Stenton Family Manor is wonderful,” says Jill Fink, executive director of Weavers Way Community Programs. “Something about the experience forces class and race and age to fall away. Gardening becomes the great equalizer.” Fink, who has worked with Guthrie since early 2013, is inspired by her energy: “Nothing stops Margaret. [She] is so active and civically minded.” 

It’s that energy that takes Guthrie beyond the garden fences of Stenton Family Manor and into the stables at South Jersey Thoroughbred Rescue & Adoption. Having loved and ridden horses all her life, Guthrie volunteered with the rescued thoroughbreds until 2011. Today she maintains the animal rescue and adoption center’s monthly newsletter. 

Guthrie is also a member of the Mt. Airy Dining for Women chapter, an organization that raises funds to help women and girls transition out of deep poverty in the developing world. She  establishes relationships between the Dining for Women chapter and local food pantries, and every month DFW collects goods to donate to the pantries—with Guthrie making the deliveries. Ann Mintz is the organizer of the Mt. Airy Dining for Women Chapter that Guthrie is a member of. 
“Years ago, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone,” Mintz says. “It’s about the erosion of civic life in America. … He obviously didn’t know Margaret.”

Story by Emily Brooks