By: Nick Santangelo

To get to the words, you have to get the numbers first. Philadelphia is a city with just one age-appropriate book for every 300 children in its most neglected neighborhoods. That’s led to 60 percent of Philadelphia’s children not reading at their grade level by the end of third grade, making them 78 percent more likely not to complete high school. But just a few blocks from Temple’s main campus, Tree House Books is doing something about it.

Tree House has, with some helping hands from Temple, been working with the North Philly community to develop its underserved children into lovers of reading and writing. This past year may have been the literacy nonprofit group’s most successful yet in that regard. In 2017, Tree House got 67,665 books into the hands of Philadelphia children and families while providing literacy programs for 310 children at its 15th and Susquehanna location.

Finding Her Way

And while much of that work was accomplished thanks to full-time staff members like a new program director—a literacy expert and former Philadelphia teacher—Tree House couldn’t have made all those inroads without the help of 528 volunteers, many of them Temple students. What’s more, Tree House can have as transformative an effect on those students as it does on the children in which it fosters a lifelong love of reading.

“Tree House pretty regularly changes the lives of college students, in addition to kids,” says Temple English Professor Eli Goldblatt, who’s sat on Tree House’s advisory board since shortly after its 2005 founding. Goldblatt’s Literacy and Society course challenges students to get involved in Philadelphia through community-based learning, and a handful of students choose to do their volunteer work at Tree House every year.

“I’ve had students who did honors theses about their work at Tree House,” says Dr. Goldblatt. “One former student who was an English major and an honors student, she swore up and down she’d never be a teacher. But she got involved with Tree House and wrote their summer program. She went back in the fall, took some courses with me and then decided, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m going to be a teacher. I have to do this.’”

That student was Danielle Mancinelli ’10, who today views herself as a children’s advocate. Mancinelli is the Assistant Principal of Instruction for kindergarten through second grade at a charter school in the city’s Nicetown-Tioga area. She also helps local kids through a nonprofit called Bridge, which provides children with trauma-informed yoga and social-emotional learning. Holding Temple bachelor’s degrees in English and Political Science as well as a Masters of Education in Reading, Mancinelli is passionate about social and political equality. She believes education is the most effective tool for eroding inequality.

“To be honest, I had no intention of going into this field, but it was through my fieldwork at Tree House that pivoted my career trajectory,” recalls Mancinelli. “I fell in love with the place. I love reading, writing, poetry, all that kind of stuff.”

She first came to Tree House as a volunteer before starting an internship there in which she designed a literacy program. Mancinelli would go on to reflect her community work back into her academic work, making another literacy program as a Temple Diamond Research Scholar. Her faculty partner on that project was none other than Dr. Goldblatt, who would later become one of Mancinelli’s professors during her senior year.

For Tree House Executive Director June Bretz, increasing students’ community work through efforts like Mancinelli’s is key to the organization’s mission.

“We know Temple University graduates are going to spread all across the four corners of the globe, but what we want them to leave with is that they connected deeply with this North Philadelphia community,” says Bretz. “They’re not just going to school here, but they’re living here, and they’re deeply rooted. They see some of the issues we deal with in this urban setting, and they see how great it is to give back with this spirit of philanthropy. When they go back to wherever they’re from, they bring that spirit of philanthropy back with them.”

Give and Take

Bretz sees it as a two-way relationship for Temple students and North Philadelphia kids. Whether they’re leading yoga classes, working on Tree House’s social media accounts or databases or directly teaching kids to read, a connection is formed.

“Kids love to see Temple students. They look up to our volunteers as role models. Deep relationships are formed between the students and the kids, which is really nice.”

Those relationships were deep enough for Mancinelli to completely change her career trajectory. She “loves” the kids she worked with then, just as she does those she works with today. To Mancinelli, the work of teaching kids to read and write is “critical” in transforming their own paths. It's all part of the lifelong pursuit of learning, and, to that end, Mancinelli still turns to her sage professor for wisdom all these years later, recently asking Dr. Goldblatt for advice on a career move. For his part, Dr. Goldblatt shares the opinion that community-based work is critical for both Temple students and young children’s development.

“It has to be reciprocal,” he explains. “We work with the community organizations to see how can we support what they’re trying to do? At the same time, you have your own self-interests, which is we have all these students who need to think about their lives in a larger way. And they’re dying to do it!

“I met with students yesterday who gave an incredible presentation on how important it is for students to be working internships and community-based learning opportunities. They really, really want this.”

Catching Up

The ability to get involved in the community like this is a major part of what drew Mancinelli to Temple. Before enrolling, she considered going to school in a college town, but she feared being “isolated” there. Having grown up in Doylestown, Pa., she remembers having to stop and think about her privileges as a white woman from the suburbs and “check any preconceived notions and operate from a place of understanding” when she came to North Philly. Mancinelli saw firsthand the disparity between the city’s heavily gentrified sections and those left in need. She wanted to do her part to lessen the divide, and her work at Tree House left her “feeling optimistic” about what’s possible when people get involved.

And just what is possible? Bretz has seen children come through Tree House who were two full grade levels behind where they should be and witnessed them catch up within a year. The afterschool programs and the book giveaways help make that possible, but Bretz is an avid believer that allowing the kids to self-select what they want to read and write is a major part of why the organization is so successful in improving literacy rates. In unison with Dr. Goldblatt, she cites the importance of providing children with a learning environment that’s free of grades and pressure. If they want to learn poetry, read magazines or write stories, they can do it. Dr. Goldblatt identifies a reason why literacy has to be about more than just discipline and evaluation, why it has to be about relationship building.

“Because literacy is about thinking and feeling. It’s not just about decoding words.”

Bretz has the perfect example of how this has played out in practice. Tree House recently tried to help a child with behavioral issues who initially had no desire to be helped. She’d snap, “I hate you” to teachers and other students. Fortunately, Tree House’s program director has more to offer than just his teaching credentials. Beyond his backgrounds in literacy and teaching, Bretz credits her director’s natural ability to lead be “super, super lovable” with having changed the child’s attitude.

“Over six-to-eight months, that child really turned around,” says Bretz. “When you walk through the doors she’s giving everyone hugs. She became kind of a greeter at Tree House. And this is a very young child. Of course she saw improvements in her reading and writing, but she wanted to be here and was happy to be here. Her wanting to be here began to affect other areas of her life. It was just a really nice thing, a beautiful thing to watch.”

Branching Out

Bretz’s story is one that would warm anyone’s heart and show that the value of Tree House’s work goes beyond the macro numbers. There are real people living right here in Temple’s backyard who need this kind of service, the kind that will put them on course for academic success and also help them develop as a person. But Tree House wouldn’t be in a position to provide it as an effective charity without being a smart business.

That’s possible thanks to donations from organizations like Temple and charitable individuals, particularly a couple named Bob and Sue Wieseneck, whom Bretz credits with having helped Tree House grow during the good times and “literally” keep their doors open during the tougher ones. Specifically, Tree House went from giving away something like 7,000 books in 2016 to the more than 67,000 they gave out last year thanks to an increase in donations.

“Because of increased support, we’ve been able to expand our hours and become a true open-door community center,” says Bretz. “The community can count on us to be here, and we provide top quality and instruction and a great student-to-teacher ratio, and a lot of that is due to Temple support and volunteers and the Weisenecks.”

Giving out more books wasn’t the only way Tree House grew, either. Instead of operating with limited hours and staffing, the organization’s Giving Library is now fully staffed and open six days a week from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It also held its second annual Philadelphia Literacy Day, a book flea market and festival-like event that wouldn’t be possible without donors and volunteers. But even with all the giving from the community, Tree House has to be smart about how it uses the time and money it’s given.

“We understand that in order to run a good nonprofit, you need to run a good business,” explains Bretz. “Understanding that Temple students come here not only to serve the community but also to build their own careers, we are intentional about how we set up our interns and volunteers.

“We run our volunteer program like a business, as if we have an HR department, and we blur the lines between paid and unpaid staff, so volunteers are treated with the same level of respect as employees are. That means when you go to get a job somewhere you’re going to have been well-trained and oriented, and that’s respected by employers. We’re clear about the expectations of each position and try to make it an opportunity where the students not only enjoy but they learn, and they walk away feeling like they have learned and experienced things they wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.”

Getting Involved

Everyone in Philadelphia knows the city has a literacy problem, and it’s unlikely any single effort will fix it overnight. But by giving out books to the community and by bringing children through its doors for reading and writing programs, Tree House is doing its part to help every individual it can to close the gap. But it can’t do it alone.

“Nonprofits absolutely depend on their partners, their volunteers, their donors,” adds Bretz. “Without those, you don’t exist. Partners, volunteers and donors come and go, but Temple has been with us since the very beginning, and they’re still with us. Without them, we wouldn’t be here, and we look forward to growing with them.”

And what of those individuals? Dr. Goldblatt says his students who volunteer and/or intern at Tree House learn that “there’s a lot to love in North Philadelphia.” They also learn to love literacy more themselves, further developing their own passions for reading and writing. They can even discover a potential career path for themselves while helping these local kids. Mancinelli, one of Tree House’s biggest success stories, wants every student to experience something like that.

I encourage any current Temple students to really get involved with community-based learning and service organizations and really get out into Philadelphia and be a part of all of the amazing progress that’s happening. Get in touch with the community members and hear their stories. Be advocates for community members by hearing their voices and leveraging your privilege for social change.

Photography by Colleen Claggett

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