If you’ve visited the Schuylkill Center on a weekday, chances are you’ve met Michelle Havens, our receptionist, office manager, and gift shop manager. At the center for more than five years, Michelle has deep roots in our community, as she is a third-generation Roxborough resident.
Michelle has lived in Roxborough for most of her life. Born at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, she grew up on Domino Lane, attended Shawmont School, and even lived in the Scout House off Henry Avenue in her 20s. As a child, “I used to walk from Domino Lane to the Andorra Shopping Center,” she told me, and fondly remembers the Clover there not far from the movie theater. “And Ivy Ridge was way different too; Target was an A&P, and there was a movie theater there too. You could walk so many places and not have to worry about it,” she continued. “Everything was within walking distance.” And today? “It’s just way busier, more traffic, more everything.”
She also remembers playing along the trails of the Schuylkill Center. “This was the park on the other side of the Ridge from the Wissahickon,” she said, laughing. “I’d not only play here, but I came here on school field trips.”
Michelle loves Roxborough’s many greenspaces, and she also “loves the nosiness of the neighbors. Everyone knows what’s going on, so it’s got a small-town feel; we look after each other. But that’s also a downside, that everyone knows what’s going on!”
She’s become active in the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, joining its board two years ago, and worries that the civic’s work “is getting busier now with so much building going on. For the civic, “keeping up with COVID is a little hectic, and makes things much harder. We can’t meet in person, so it’s tougher to get information to people and get their feedback. But we’re still doing it.”
I asked her what Roxborough should know about the Schuylkill Center. “Some people aren’t aware of what we do back here, and some people are just afraid to find out—maybe they’re too set in their ways. But we’ve got great hiking trails that connect to the bike trail, and you can head north or south along the trail. We’ve got great ponds, and great views of the Schuylkill River. It’s just a great place to get away—you can lose yourself in the woods without really getting lost. And you can partake in our programs!”
Michelle noted that many people “are surprised that we’re not supported by the city,” and she’s right. The center is privately supported, is not part of Fairmount Park, and receives no city funding.
As the front desk receptionist, she’s met a wide variety of people– and living things. “I came in one day to find a flying squirrel sitting on the seed cart in the lobby. I mean, where else can you find that?” She’s seen great blue herons fly by the front door, and she’s among the handful of staff who have seen coyotes. “I’ve seen a lot of them outside,” she recounted, “and have heard them some evenings too.”
She’s also met a lot of interesting people. “One Saturday,” she said, “an older visitor came who used to live in a house above Wind Dance Pond,” the Center’s largest pond. “She was in her 80s or 90s, grew up there, and really wanted to see the pond.” Wind Dance is the pond visible from Port Royal Avenue, and her home, long gone, was on that road back in the day. “Everyone who comes is interesting; everyone has a story,” she offered.
But the big downside of being our receptionist is facing the public in a pandemic. “That isn’t something everyone wants to do, “ she confessed. “Last year when we started preparing for summer camp and the prospect of visitors returning, I was nervous about people following the mandates and guidelines. Prior to COVID, people were constantly coming and going, chatting at the entrance and hanging out. I was concerned about the risk of exposure.
“For the most part, “ she continued, “everyone has been great with masks and distancing. Many of our visitors have been grateful to have a place to come to safely. As much as I worried about exposure, even these brief interactions with visitors allow me to feel some semblance of normalcy. It’s a connection to other people in a time where many are unable to have that.”
Michelle runs our gift shop, which features “an assortment of nature, local, and eco-friendly products, a little something for everyone.” Of course it features the best bird seed around, plus lots of bird feeders and other products that bring nature into your yard. Members get a discount, (hint, hint), a great reason to join.
She has raised two kids in her Upper Roxborough home—a fourth generation—and both are enrolled in college locally, one in environmental studies and the other in computer science. “I’ve got one green and one techie!” Her green child has worked in our Summer Camp and substitute teaches in our Nature Preschool, so the Center has been a family affair as well.
To her neighbors, she invites everyone to visit, to “get out and enjoy the break in the weather. Not many nature centers are open right now, so we’re lucky. We’re following all the rules, but we’re open!”
Michelle, all of us here thank you for so warmly staffing the front desk at such a ridiculously challenging time. We’re in your debt.
—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director