The beauty of the pale pink cherry blossoms expected to bloom in Fairmount Park this month during the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia symbolize the fragility of life in Japanese culture. The significance resonates with the TreeKeepers – a group of nine seasonal Parks and Recreation workers – who prepared the park ahead of the celebration of spring.
"I didn’t think anyone would hire me," said 27-year-old Jorge Vera, who completed a six-month stint in a Philadelphia prison for drug charges. "And it was my fault. I can’t blame nobody else but me."
In 2013, about a year after his release, Vera began working with the TreeKeepers, a maintenance crew that removes invasive species and debris, prunes and plants trees, and clears trails at neighborhood civic spaces including the more than 300 parks and recreation centers in Philadelphia.
"I look forward to every morning," Vera said.
About half of the TreeKeepers were formerly incarcerated for mostly non-violent, drug-related offenses, said Andrew Emma, program manager.
"They’re ready to turn their life around now," Emma said. "We’re going to give them the opportunity to do that."
The program launched in 2011 as a four-month seasonal job for 10 employees.
After operating for the last two years as a six-month seasonal job, TreeKeepers will work for nine months this year – a stretch that began in mid-March.
Although the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has many needs, Emma says he hopes TreeKeepers’ evolution continues, whether it be adding more crew members or turning the current positions into full-time jobs.
"I’ve been preaching baby steps," he said. "But if we can focus on maintenance the way we ideally should be doing, it’ll give our city a better image and people won’t be afraid that trees will interfere with their property or damage their power lines."
From 2011 to 2013, the group tended to trees in 98 distinct sites throughout the city, said Emma, who estimates the nine month term will allow the TreeKeepers to tackle 60 locations in one year.
After spending the last two weeks in March working on Happy Hollow Rec Center in Germantown, the TreeKeepers moved to Fairmount Park to focus on the area near the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.
“There is a grove of cherry trees at the Horticultural Center,” Emma said. “But if you are trying to look from the grove to the Japanese House or vice versa, all you’d see between it are invasives and overgrowth. We want to open up the space so that people can see the beauty.”
Vera and Emma, along with the rest of the TreeKeepers, pared down devil’s walking stick, multiflora rose vines and shrub honeysuckles to improve the experience for revelers visiting the park during the two-week long Cherry Blossom Festival.
Plus the team will be giving away trees as part of the Parks and Recreation Yard Tree Program at Pennypack Environmental Center at 8600 Verree Road Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and at the West Oak Lane Library at 2000 Washington Lane Sunday, April 6, from noon to 2 p.m.
Vera planted a sweetbay magnolia in his yard after last year’s giveaway. "It makes you respect the trees and the parks more," said Vera, who had never been to the Japanese House before his job with TreeKeepers.
"I only see that stuff on the news," he said. "I never thought I’d see it let alone work for the day there."
Visitors can take in the freshly pruned grounds on April 13 when the festival holds the Sakura Sunday finale, or anytime throughout the year.