By Hilary Appelman
Carmen Bell is an avid gardener. So the idea of creating an outdoor space where visitors to Bethlehem’s Hispanic Senior Center can sit and relax came naturally to her.
“My vision is of a peaceful place where you can have a coffee or play a game of chess or have a conversation,” said Bell, 63, of Allentown. She’s director of healthy aging at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.
The organization is one of six Pennsylvania recipients of AARP’s 2019 Community Challenge grants.
The small awards, part of AARP’s Livable Communities initiative, help neighborhoods make immediate improvements.
United Way is converting an empty lot next to the Bethlehem center into a safe, accessible green space for community residents, Bell said.
This year, AARP awarded nearly $1.6 million through 159 grants nationwide. Projects must be completed by Nov. 4.
The other recipients in Pennsylvania are using funds to make a wide variety of improvements.
In Chester County, large-print, weather-resistant, bilingual bus schedules are being installed at a dozen stops to make the Chescobus SCCOOT route more accessible to older and Spanish-speaking riders.
“When bus schedule information is smartphone and internet driven, it’s important that we still consider passengers who may not have that technology,” said Tim Phelps, executive director of the county’s Transportation Management Association.
In Upper Darby, a pedestrian walkway between a free parking garage and the town’s main shopping and entertainment area is being transformed with new lighting and a mural.
Focus groups, including older residents and veterans, gathered ideas on Upper Darby history to include in the 135-foot-long mural, which was designed by a local elementary school teacher.
Community and student volunteers are helping paint the mural, which includes images of Upper Darby’s past, portraits of homegrown celebrities and the word “Hello” in 60 languages.
In Pittsburgh, the nonprofit Grounded Strategies is supporting a community garden being built by the veteran-led Project Love Coalition in the city’s Hill District—one of six vacant lots that Grounded Strategies has worked with neighborhood groups to restore.
Project Love President Kent Bey said the garden will grow cucumbers, tomatoes and other produce with the help of neighbors. “We’re trying to help beautify and inject some new life into the community,” he said.
In Eastern North Philadelphia, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha is improving pedestrian crossings along Germantown Avenue, part of a larger effort to revitalize a neglected street, said Misha Rodriguez, its special projects coordinator.
The plan includes making two pedestrian islands safer and more visible, repainting crosswalks and setting up a volunteer cleaning crew.
Also in Philadelphia, the city’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity is supporting a pilot landlord-tenant mediation program to try to reduce evictions in the city.
Bill Johnson-Walsh, AARP state director, said the grants “help these places become more livable for residents of all ages every day.”
Hilary Appelman is a writer living in State College.