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Senior Environment Corps makes big impact

Alicia Colombo

By Mary Anna Rodabaugh

The Senior Environment Corps (SEC) program has been engaging volunteers aged 55 and older in nature-based projects since 1993. SEC volunteers participate in numerous scientific activities, including water quality monitoring, stream habitat assessment and soil testing.

“I was involved with the inception of SEC,” says Fred Lewis, 95, of Germantown. “I had just retired, and I was looking for something to do in my retirement.”

One day 30 years ago, Lewis passed by Center in the Park, a nonprofit senior community center in Northwest Philadelphia. He walked inside, introduced himself and asked about possibilities beyond retirement. The staff mentioned they were considering forming a Senior Environment Corps and asked Lewis if he would be interested in being a part of the new group.

“I guess the rest is history,” Lewis said. “From that point on, I ended up forming the program and becoming the coordinator.”

According to Lewis, it is very stimulating to be among peers and encouraging to interact with people his own age who have the same kind of ambitious thoughts. SEC tends to attract older adults who feel they have a lot to offer.

Currently, SEC has 20 active volunteers.

Creating a legacy
David Schogel, 82, from Germantown, has been an active member of SEC for the past 25 years.

“After I retired, I was looking for a place to do some exercises,” he said. “I went to Center in the Park to its exercise room. One day, I saw a poster that read: ‘Do you like the environment? Join Senior Environment Corps.’ I met Fred, learned what the group was doing and have been a member ever since.”

When Schogel joined SEC, the group was actively monitoring and testing water from nearby creeks, rivers and streams. He learned how to properly monitor water quality through trainings and mentorship. Now, Schogel mentors other SEC volunteers.

“I get a lot of enjoyment out of helping create something from nothing,” he said. It’s enjoyable “bringing people together, getting them interested, working with them and getting to know them better. Over the years, I’ve formed a lot of friendships through the group. I like the intellectual stimulation and the social interaction. I like being able to be concerned about the environment, not only for myself but for others and for my grandkids. I know what we do is important for society as a whole. That gives me a legacy to leave.”

Current projects
SEC has been conducting very important soil tests throughout northwest Philadelphia, with the guidance of Adrian Wood, program coordinator for community engagement at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology in University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Using specialized soil kits, SEC members go to various locations and collect soil samples. The members identify the samples using precise coordinates so the results can be illustrated on a map.

“We are trying to concentrate on the northwest section of the city right now,” Schogel said. “We are in the process of visiting every schoolyard, playground and park in the area. We also have tested several community gardens.”

SEC is testing the soil for the presence of lead. Even though lead is a natural mineral found in the ground, high levels of lead can present dangerous health risks. Lead can find its way into soil from car exhaust and building demolitions. SEC volunteers have collected about 100 samples. Findings will be presented to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and city officials.

In addition to the soil testing project, SEC is also rolling out the Salt Watch project, where volunteers use kits to test nearby bodies of water for salt content after a big snowfall. The salt used by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to treat roads for snow and ice can find its way into local waterways, causing a spike in the water’s salt content. SEC is also going to be testing nitrate levels in local waterways.

Air quality monitoring is the newest venture for the group. The parameters and process are still being mapped out, but SEC volunteers hope to learn more about proper air quality monitoring and begin testing in the near future.

“SEC is now taking this three-pronged approach: land, sea and air,” Schogel said. “We hope that we can make some valuable contributions to society.”

Get involved with Senior Environment Corps

SEC is always open to new membership. The group meets at Center in the Park, located at 5818 Germantown Ave. in Germantown, on the first Friday of each month at 1 p.m. Virtual attendance options are available through Zoom or videoconferencing. Volunteers do not need to live in northwest Philadelphia, nor do they need to have a science or biology background. Current SEC volunteers have worked as teachers, bus drivers, social workers and homemakers.

“There is something for everyone,” Lewis said. “And we train everyone.”

If you are interested in volunteering with SEC or want more information, call Center in the Park at 215-848-7722 or visit

Mary Anna Rodabaugh is a writer, editor and writing coach.

Categories: Milestones eNews Volunteer


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