Marine vet launches "Pleasant Playground Garden Committee" to provide healthy food access in Mt. Airy

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Fifty-two-year-old Joseph Johnson has always had a passion for gardening and the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation scene.

Spending most of his earlier years between the city's West Oak Lane and Mt. Airy sections, Johnson enjoyed playing at Pleasant Playground on the 6700 block of Chew Avenue.

"Pleasant playground was my home. I grew up here playing basketball, football, baseball with a lot of my friends," said Johnson.

After learning of the work of John Seawright, who was the former director of Pleasant Playground, Johnson then went on to enroll at Temple University to major in parks and recreation management in 1987.

But that goal was put on hold when Johnson felt a calling to enlist in the U.S. Marines.

"I ended up serving 23 years in the military. While I was there, part of me serving in the military was part of my chance to give back," said Johnson.

After 23 years of service, Johnson felt his previous aspirations circle back around.

In 2015, while spending a short time in New Orleans, Johnson attended a two-week permaculture course that later led to a six-month organic farming apprenticeship.

Once returning to Philadelphia in 2016, Johnson formed a group called the "Pleasant Playground Garden Committee."

The mission is to connect with other gardens and environmentalists to create a nonprofit community garden on Pleasant Playground's 4.8-acre land.

"It was in that program (apprenticeship) while I was there, one of the questions they asked us was: 'What are you going to do with these skills that you're learning?'" said Johnson.

He said the land was fallow where the old Pleasant Playground building used to be. Once he learned that it had moved, the inspiration behind a community garden blossomed.

Johnson aims to create more access to healthy foods and provide educational opportunities, along with a shared green space for neighbors to promote health and wellness.

"My initial aspirations to work in the community was coming full circle," said Johnson. "Because I can bring those skills back that I was learning, and apply them to teaching people in the community how to grow food."

Johnson and his team recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to help phase two of their vision after a recent delay amid the pandemic.

While phase one raised a total of $6,500, the committee has closed in on their second goal of $13,000 to fund their $20,000 project.

Johnson says the funds will go toward creating 50 raised garden beds that the community can rent for an annual fee of $25.

So far, Johnson says their goal of 50 beds is almost complete as he looks to uplift his community, one garden seed at a time.

"Our motto is to grow food, grow community. So that's our vision to have this be a space to have individuals of all ages, all races, can come together, grow food, and grow community," he said.
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