Danielle Mancinelli has become a star volunteer at Tree House Books.
In 2005, Tree House Books, a nonprofit organization located at 1430 Susquehanna Ave., got its start as small, one-room center crammed with used books, a round table in the center and two or three kids wandering in at 3 p.m. a few days a week for help with their homework. Since that time, though, the space in Temple’s own neighborhood has nearly doubled its size with about 18 additional children, summer programs, a magazine workshop, a monthly international night and even an organization at Temple dedicated to it.
Tree House Books, with all its funding coming from donations and grants, has developed quite a résumé in the last five years, leaving many to wonder how it all happened for the small nonprofit.
The explanation is neither simple nor short, but it boils down to the work of a few dedicated, longtime volunteers. Though Tree House’s volunteers throughout the years have come from all over, few kept coming back.
Danielle Mancinelli – who, like many visitors to Tree House, was led there by Temple – stayed and has become one of the organization’s most valued staff members.
Mancinelli, a senior English and political science major, started volunteering in the after-school homework help program her freshman year. The following year, she earned the Diamond Research Scholar award though Temple’s Honors department to use for a summer program at Tree House Books. The program came to fruition in the summer of 2009.
“That whole idea for the summer program was to do community education, to really engage the the kids in the neighborhood,” Mancinelli said. “A lot of times, I think there’s a certain stigma attached to being from North Philly, so we just wanted to really celebrate where they’re from and be like, ‘Look, there’s all these beautiful places here.’”
Mancinelli also became involved with other aspects of the development of Tree House in her time there, such as the Junior Staff Member program, which is for the leadership of local youth, ages 11 to 15. She is now the JSM coordinator, working at the head of the students who participate in the program.
“They’re at this age where they’re a little too old to be in tutoring time, but they’re not old enough to do upward bound or high school stuff,” Mancinelli said. “For me, I really see [the program] as a space for them to have open dialogue about things that are going on, but it’s also a leadership training program.
The way I explain anything that we do at Tree House, especially with the JSMs, is ‘creative experiment,’” she added.
Tree House Books’ JSMs, Mancinelli said, mentor younger children but also work on their own separate activities. This semester, JSMs are learning about the World War II era through reading related books, completing writing activities and participating in group discussions.
“What’s really great is there’s no worksheet or vocabulary to go along with it,” Mancinelli said. “They’re just sitting around a table having discussions and connecting [what they learn] to things in their lives critically and analytically, but without having the constraints of the classroom.”
Mancinelli also organizes field trips and dinners for the JSMs as rewards for their time and for exemplary efforts they’ve provided throughout the semester. In the past, they have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Eastern State Penitentiary and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
During the 2009 summer camp, Mancinelli helped organize an interview with Democratic committeeman Sharif Street, North Philadelphia native and son of former mayor John Street, so local children could meet and ask him questions. The group also visited the Wagner Institute, located on West Montgomery Avenue, as well as murals in the community.
This semester, Mancinelli co-founded a student organization, Young Friends of Tree House Books, to help organizations focused on community work to get involved with Tree House.
Mancinelli said she continues to seek involvement with Tree House Books because of her passion for what the organization does.
“Kids are coming in there who, the first time they came in, wouldn’t even sit down and do their homework, and four months down the line, they’re sitting at an open mic, reading a poem they wrote,” Mancinelli said. “It’s totally transforming the way they see themselves, which is what’s most important to me, allowing kids to see the potential they have and giving them the space to really explore it.”
Carlene Majorino cans be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.