Fred Lewis in his SEC office at Center in the Park. (Photo: Maleka Fruean)

Fred Lewis is laughing as he sits in his Senior Environment Corps (SEC) office on the lower floor of Center in the Park (CIP). He’s had a long leadership, but he’s 96 years old now and thinks it’s time to pass the torch to someone younger. Someone like 84-year-old David Schogel. 

Lewis and Schogel currently co-lead the center’s environmental group, which has been around since the 1990s. Throughout the years, the group has tested water quality in the Monoshone Creek and has worked with countless youth in the area on environmental education and water quality testing. They have recently started working on soil testing and, just last year, won a Community Resilience and Environmental Justice Fund grant to begin air quality testing in the neighborhood. 

Lewis is most proud that the SEC has stayed together and active the entire time since they started. “Since it began, it never stopped. Throughout the whole COVID, we still had this group, and we still kept in operation. So I’m very proud of that,” said Lewis.

The group gained attention through a documentary called Knee Deep in 2004. The documentary followed the group throughout the year, documenting their testing of Monoshone Creek for bacteria. Their data collection on E. Coli helped lead the Philadelphia Water Department to correct some important infrastructure to protect the water. 

Schogel, who joined the group after the documentary, was looking for something to do after retirement. After attending an exercise class at the Center in the Park, he saw a sign about the Senior Environment Corps and has been an active member ever since. He also was one of the founders and organizers of the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center on Hansberry and Wayne Ave. 

“For individual members like myself, we all have different motives for joining, “ said Schogel. 

He continued: “My primary motive was I wanted to leave a legacy. I’m not a wealthy man, so I don’t have any money to leave to this group or that group. But I figured I could do something with the environment and inspire others and alert folks to problems in the environment. So I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Schogel and the rest of the SEC team have expanded into air quality testing. It’s new to them, and they’re still learning the processes that go with it. 

The idea was spurred by the growing concerns of local neighbors around the SEPTA Roberts Gas and Heating Plant on the Germantown/Nicetown border. They are using the Community Resilience grant to install air quality monitors near CIP to start learning how the testing works. Then, they will begin installing monitors near the gas plant and getting readings at different parts of the day to see what the air quality is like for nearby neighbors. 

Air quality monitors installed by the Senior Environment Corps at Center in the Park. (Photo: Wayne Hunter)

Wayne Hunter, who runs the Talking Tech programs at Center in the Park, which helps seniors learn about technology, is helping with the installations.

“The value of them is so that we can help folks. As you age, respiratory ailments kind of take off. You know, that’s really something we need to be aware of. And having information about SEPTA’s impact on air quality, as well as traffic and just understanding that there may be an ebb and flow. What we’re doing now is just kind of creating data that we can then pass off and help people kind of navigate. For people in sensitive groups, it’s not only helpful, it’s critical,” said Hunter.

Hunter says SEC plans to start with areas around the Center in the Park to see what air quality looks like, especially during rush hour. He thinks it might be a good navigation tool for folks to give them some guidance on when they should be out exercising or walking, especially if they have respiratory problems. They’ve installed two monitors and are in the process of installing more. 

The group has changed and grown over the years, losing members and loved ones. At their last monthly meeting in May, they had a fully packed agenda, which included the planning details for a memorial service for Dr. Edward Chun, one of their longtime valued members. 

Lewis also lost his wife in 2018. They had been married for 65 years, and both were active volunteers at CIP. “My wife became just as involved in other things. She was very active. We both enjoyed coming here, because I would be here (in SEC’s downstairs office) and she would be in her office upstairs. It was like a job for us,” said Lewis. 

Throughout all the changes, they continue to work on projects and collaborate. They have a great working partnership with Chestnut Hill College, where they use their science lab for their water quality testing and bring students for water quality testing days. Dr. Bob Meyer, a retired Chestnut Hill College professor of biology, has worked with the group for many years and is now officially a member. They also have working partnerships with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania as they expand into soil and air quality testing. 

Hunter spoke to the testament of Lewis’ leadership as a driving force of the group. He met Lewis a few years ago and hopes to be as active and influential as a person when he’s in his mid-nineties. 

“I hope that when I’m older that I am as sharp and as involved as he is because he says that is the secret to his longevity, and I believe him,” said Hunter.

The SEC at Center in the Park is always looking for new members. The only requirement is that the group members be 55 or older, although Schogel said that sometimes the group works with younger adults and teenagers. Contact the center’s volunteer page to learn more and get involved.