By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
Jo Ann is our hero, demonstrating a level of leadership and dedication that is uncommon in volunteerism.
James Harry Calamia, RDC Executive Director
Jo Ann Desper lives in the Wissahickon section of Roxborough, not far from that mystical hermit’s cave off Hermit Lane. The retired marketing executive is deeply rooted in our community: having lived in Roxborough-Manayunk for more than 30 years, she now wears two very important hats. Not only is she one of the fabulous volunteers at the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, helping return injured, sick, and orphaned animals into the wild, but she is president of the Roxborough Development Corporation, the group charged with enlivening our business district.
“As a volunteer for the RDC,” says James Harry Calamia, the RDC’s executive director, “Jo Ann is our hero, demonstrating a level of leadership and dedication that is uncommon in volunteerism. The contributions of nonprofit volunteers like Jo Ann embody the best in our community.” We at the Schuylkill Center second that emotion.
Volunteering at the Wildlife Clinic “is something I’ve been wanting to do for years,” she told me recently. She’s been there for most of this year, starting when the clinic held its wildlife-themed festival on Groundhog’s Day in February. After beginning with laundry and food preparation, she said, “I’ve learned how to feed baby birds, squirrels, all kinds of creatures. She likes the birds in general, “but the squirrels are adorable.” She’s especially attached to one she calls a “teenager,” soon ready for release.
And she’s had the pleasure of releasing three squirrels recently near hermit’s cave, former patients who have been sent back into the wild.
“Jo Ann is a much appreciated and essential part of our volunteer team,” said the clinic’s director, Rebececa Michelin. “She not only takes special care with the animals, she also gives her time to orient new volunteers and train them on daily tasks. It’s wonderful having such a compassionate person working with us to achieve our mission.”
An animal person, “one of my first jobs out of high school was as a veterinary assistant in a small vet hospital.” After a long career in what she calls “a Fortune Five healthcare company,” she laughs that she is “starting and ending my career with animals.” While she used to own five cats and a dog at her home, “I’m down to one dog and one cat,” so the clinic takes care of her need to be buried in animals.
Volunteering at the clinic “is hard work but very rewarding. It’s a way to help heal the earth– most of the animals we see are there because of some interaction with humans,” like birds currently at the clinic there because they were migrating south and struck glazed windows, unable to see the glass. “We owe it to them to get them back where they belong,” she offered.
She’s been on the board of the Roxborough Development Corporation for the last seven years, three as president, where the board oversees staff management of the Business Improvement District. “James and his staff do a lot to make the Ridge a place to shop, have fun, and be safe.” In the fun department, RDC has been the lead on the still-new pocket park on Ridge Avenue, which also smartly contributes to stormwater management. That fun is being kicked up a notch as a brewery, New Ridge, will soon open a brewpub alongside the park– this writer at least is greatly looking forward to tasting a New Ridge beer.
“We need more nighttime businesses,” Jo Ann continued, “to enliven the Ridge.” Manayunk has a very different nightlife than Roxborough, as Roxborough’s restaurants tend to attract locals to dine, but Manayunk is a destination for people across the region. While Roxborough might never be Manayunk– that’s a high hurdle– it has been taking some steps in that direction. In addition to New Ridge, Jo Ann noted the recent opening of the White Yak, a Tibetan restaurant, and the Philadelphia Folksong Socety’s move to the Ridge as well.
The RDC board is “all volunteers; we try to draw from the community: business owners, builders, realtors, residents like me, so all areas are represented.”
She also noted that the RDC is coming to the end of its Roxborough 2020 five-year plan, where residents filled out a questionnaire asking for their vision of Roxborough. When they tabulated the results, she said “everybody wanted two things, a Target and a Trader Joe’s. We got the Target,” she laughed, as there is a mini-Target in the old Superfresh at Ridge and Domino Lane. Let’s see if they can score a Trader Joe’s!
“We’re also trying to promote the green spaces,” she said, and noted that in their beautiful full-color folder the RDC hands out to new residents and businesses is a two-page spread denoting the open space attractions of Roxborough, including the River Trail, Andorra Meadows, the Wissahickon Valley Park, the Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, and yes, the Schuylkill Center. “So many people who move to Roxborough talk about the green spaces,” she said, an important commodity that disappears almost daily due to subdivision and development.
She’s also hoping the Roxborough Historic District will “help maintain the character of the neighborhood. We want a small-town vibe in the big city.”
The Schuylkill Center thanks Jo Ann for joining the core of volunteers who support our critical mission of wildlife rehabilitation. If you’d like to join Jo Ann on the wildlife crew, please email the clinic’s assistant director and volunteer coordinator Chris Strub at firstname.lastname@example.org.