Inspired to make a change: sometimes you have to see it to believe it

Written by Ruby Mora.

Born and raised in Reading, Ashley Dejesus-Santiago has contributed to her community by working to improve the public spaces and lives of her neighbors in the northside of Reading.

But she wasn’t always confident in the potential for a city, or even a single neighborhood, to transform for the better. She needed to see for herself transformation in action.

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She first became involved with community building through an internship with the South of Penn Taskforce—a community outreach project focused on increasing home ownership, improving livability and fostering interpersonal relationships with neighbors in the city between Canal and Franklin Streets.

“It was the first time on the other side of the conversation, because I’ve heard the usual narrative that Reading is so dirty, or people don’t take pride in their city,” Ashley said. “I’m not saying that I agree, but that was the side of the conversation I was on before I started working for the South of Penn. So, working for South of Penn was inspirational.”

To make change in a neighborhood, a person must first get to know the community, and Ashley had some initial struggles in chatting with South of Penn neighbors.

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But Tony Veloz, the then-coordinator for the South of Penn, was able to help her be more comfortable in both talking to people and coordinating events.

“Tony was such a great mentor,” Ashley said. “I was just hesitant on how to communicate because I’m not a people person. He did show me how I could talk to people and the format of an event, because I didn’t know how to throw an event before, so he definitely showed me how to do that.”

Courtesy of Barrio Alegria. Ashley Dejesus-Santiago, third from the left, joins other organizers for a Halloween event in the Reading Iron Playground.

She dove right into working with the South of Penn and through this, she became the coordinator of the regular neighborhood cleanup events. She saw potential to replicate similar work in her neighborhood in the city’s vast North of Penn area.

In the beginning, Ashley began taking action by cleaning up the Front & Schiller Park. As she continued leading her own cleanups, she realized that she wanted them to be a regular event and to solidify what she was doing.

“I started doing small cleanups on my own, not as ‘the North of Penn Initiative ’, just doing them,” she said. “But then I realized that I wanted this to be something that is yearly, so I might as well put a name to it, start to draw people in, and it will eventually be a group and not just an individual.”

Growth of the ‘North of Penn Initiative’ became difficult with the Covid-19 pandemic, but even as places were fearful of opening up, Ashley continued to push towards growing her initiative.

She got busy connecting with neighbors to continue the momentum she had prior to the pandemic and built trust through her resilience.

Courtesy of Barrio Alegria. Ashley Dejesus-Santiago, second from the right, joins other organizers of a superhero-themed clean up event.

“People started recognizing me around the neighborhood, especially on Facebook. They would send me videos and pictures and they were like ‘you were just out here and now look at the condition of the park!’” Ashley said. “So I see the building of relationships beginning and the connection with my own neighborhood is growing, and I don’t know if people were interested in the cleanliness of the park before — Front and Schiller Park, by the way — but I know now that it’s definitely something that people keep an eye on.”

In 2021, she began holding community events including Halloween nights consisting of pumpkin painting and candy bags for kids; a trunk or treat event in collaboration with Lauer’s Park Elementary; and an annual book bag giveaway.

The North of Penn Initiative has been put on hold for now, but a solid foundation has been set for it. All it needs is more neighbors willing to nurture it to its fullest potential.

“I would like to see more people become part of the North of Penn,” Ashley said. “I would like to see more people take interest in cleanups, to build more connections with the people in my neighborhood, and I want to get it out there more. I want to see people show interest in cleanups, and not just organizations and groups, which is why I would like to collaborate more.”

Looking towards the future, Ashley hopes to see further growth of the North of Penn as a whole. “I want to start expanding outside of cleanups, as well, like movie nights, other charitable events, and maybe I could do more outside of the spring and summer season, but that’s hugely based on getting more people involved with the North of Penn.”

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of “Historias del Barrio,” a series of stories written by local storytellers to highlight community members who have engaged with Barrio Alegria and the South of Penn Task Force, through a strategic partnership with The Wyomissing Foundation, to make positive impacts in their neighborhoods.

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