Ryan Witmer ′09
Environmental Studies major
Hometown: Wooster, Ohio
Planting gardens in abandoned lots strewn among Philadelphia’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is more than a beautification project. To Ryan Witmer ’09, and others studying at Messiah College’s Philadelphia campus (MCPC), the ongoing service project is an effective way of combating gang warfare, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, in addition to supporting ecological sustainability among the historic city’s 30,000+ vacant lots.
Urban greening projects provide a variety of economic, environmental, health-related, and social benefits, according to Witmer, an environmental studies major who serves with Urban Tree Connection (UTC)-a community development organization that transforms Philadelphia’s vacant lots into parks or gardens. Abandoned spaces, once home to drug traffickers and gangs, are revitalized by local homeowners, students, and other volunteers-resulting in safe and functional places that promote positive human interaction.
Witmer says the transformations also allow neighborhoods to overcome ‘urban food insecurities,’ or limited access to necessary nutrients. UTC’s gardens not only beautify neglected areas of this historic city, but also provide affordable, healthy alternatives to the prepackaged, artificially produced foods Witmer claims rob residents of healthy lives. “Many urban poor cannot afford fresh produce,” he says. “So the alternative is fast food chains or prepackaged meals, processed at an artificially low cost, which contribute to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The nutritional dilemma has become so widespread that it has on occasion been termed the ‘silent epidemic.’”
In 2008, 39 MCPC students, including Ryan, helped to manage 14 inner-city gardens—that’s 100,706 square feet of fresh fruits and vegetables for more than 4,200 Philadelphia children. The organization is currently researching the impact of improved diets on those families.
As an MCPC student, Witmer has been afforded many opportunities to explore his vocation in an urban context-including urban farming. “Temple offers classes you can’t get at the Grantham campus, and vice versa, which is great because it allowed me to expand my interests in all sorts of ways.”
Although the two campuses vary greatly, Witmer says one thing remains the same. “The student-professor relationship at Messiah is phenomenal. If the student reaches out to a professor for any reason-academic, personal, spiritual-the professor will respond willingly, with care.”
Posted on April 3rd, 2009