A few years ago, Chinere Wright didn’t even know the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge existed. Although she’d graduated from Bartram High School, she’d never explored Bartram’s Gardens. While she’d lived blocks from Malcolm X Park, she’d been content to drive by it for years. She couldn’t tell the difference between a black cherry tree and a red maple, or identify the birds and medicinal plants flourishing in their shadows.
What a difference a single walk in the park can make.
Last year, Chinere went to a Love Your Park event and learned about We Walk PHL, a program in partnership with Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. “Fresh off the couch,” she decided to join the group that met at Malcolm X Park.
“I was looking for a way to get outside more,” Chinere says. “I went one time and I was hooked.”
So hooked, in fact, that when the next We Walk session began, she became a substitute Walk Leader. Being in green spaces so thrilled her, she says.
“I didn’t really pay attention to [nature] before. Before it was, ‘Yeah. It’s a tree. It’s green. This one’s not.’ Now I’m paying attention to the ridges on the leaves and how many petals they have,” she says. “It allows me to be a lot more present when I’m outside and paying attention.”
Chinere began looking for more opportunities to be outside. She recently graduated from the Conservancy’s six-week Volunteer Leader training, excited to be part of the team that protects and restores the city’s natural areas. She took an online course so she could join the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tenders Program. She helped revive the Malcolm X Park’s Friends Group, becoming its secretary. She brought her six-year-old daughter, Devon Allen, to the Philadelphia Flower Show and allowed her to pick out plants to care for at home.
“I didn’t grow up with nature being a priority, and I love that I can make this a part of my daughter’s every day, breaking old traditions,” Chinere says. “It teaches appreciation for nature and the smaller things like the shapes and textures and smoothness of different rocks or different trees. Everything today is so focused on phones, technology, and screen times, and she likes being outside and getting her hands in mulch and playing with rocks.”
A We Walk memory that makes you smile: “I was leaving a We Walk leadership event at John Heinz when I saw a group of women in a pavilion jumping double dutch. Turns out it was a fitness club for women over 40. I ended up staying there for another hour and a half, jumping rope. We’re not teenagers anymore, and I was exhausted the next day, but it was great. The oldest woman who was jumping rope was 72. That’s motivation. That’s how you have quality of life. When you sit still, you just stall.”
More than walking and chewing gum: Chinere teaches hula hoop fitness classes and she often brings a hoop along on her walks. Sometimes she hoops while walking, which is good for her endurance and is always an attention-grabber. “When people drive by and see us walking and hooping and they get interested in what we’re doing. We tell them and say, ‘Come join us!’”
My favorite thing about We Walk is… the diversity of the walkers: Old and young, Black and white, white collar judges walking with blue collar workers. “A lot of time, people are walking in sneakers and sweats so you don’t see them in their life clothes or know what they do for a living. You just have conversations.” During one walk, she met someone associated with the Lancaster Avenue Business Association who encouraged her to take a 12-week virtual business coaching course. “That course has helped me in my career. I have a business coach now, and it’s been such a help to me and my business,” Chinere says.
Click here to learn more about the We Walk PHL program.
We Walk PHL is funded in part by the Pa. Department of Health’s Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant.