Jose Ferran Jr. has One Way to Heal Trauma: Cleaning and Greening Hunting Park
After a traumatic experience, Jose Ferran Jr. fights tirelessly to make Hunting Park cleaner and greener, as well as healthier and kinder. His guiding principle: sustainability and mental health interventions are more connected than you might think.
This is story is part of a Broke in Philly series about green changemakers in Hunting Park. Read our overview of the project here.
This summer, Jose Ferran Jr. was walking down Cayuga Street in Hunting Park, on a route frequented by children on their way to school. He had to sidestep weeds so overgrown that they blocked his path—and worst of all, the weeds were littered with trash.
“It was like, man, how many kids walked to school on the first day like this?” he said. “Where the whole block going to school is weeds as tall as them. Do you know what that does to the psyche of a child?”
So with the help of staff at the nearby Cayuga School, workers from the City of Philadelphia’s Community Life Improvement Program, as well as two other community members, Ferran organized a cleanup of the area. Volunteers picked up 35 bags worth of trash.
It was one of many street cleanups the 24-year-old Hunting Park resident has organized since he started in the spring of 2018. To Ferran, ridding his community of blight brings it peace and wellness. In that way, it’s similar to his other cause of choice: trauma healing.
Ferran knows trauma all too well. In 2011, he was shot in the shoulder during a fight. Now, he works for several organizations and campaigns that help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And though the shooting was the most traumatic experience of Ferran’s life, it was also a turning point—a turning point for the better. Now he fights tirelessly to make Hunting Park cleaner and greener, as well as healthier and kinder. His guiding principle: sustainability and mental health interventions are more connected than you might think.
Through trauma, a greater sense of purpose
Ferran grew up moving from one neighborhood in North Philly to the next, before settling in Hunting Park in 2013. Ferran said that, growing up, he was exposed to drug use and violence in his daily life. Though his childhood was often difficult, he found relief in playing football in neighborhood rec leagues.
But due to behavioral problems—from fighting with other students to graffiting—he was placed in disciplinary school in eighth grade. With no football program at his new high school, Ferran was left with a void to fill.
“That was the pain I experienced,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to belong to a group. I wanted to belong to something that was important.”
So he turned to what seemed like his only option: joining a gang. From ages 14 to 17, Ferran spent his time selling and using drugs, graffiting and breaking into cars. And though he knew he was going down a dangerous path, he felt too paralyzed to speak up.
“I didn’t know how to tell my mom I was scared to be on the corner,” he said. “I didn’t know how to tell my friends I was scared to be on the corner.”
And then in 2011, when he was living in the Juniata neighborhood, his worst fears came true. Ferran said that, one night, he and his friends set off to fight members of a rival group. They were driving when suddenly a gunman shot into the car. A bullet hit Ferran in the shoulder.
His friend drove him to the emergency room at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children where he was treated for his injury. But the emotional wounds took much longer to heal. Ferran suffered from hyperarousal, a common PTSD symptom that causes extreme physical and psychological distress.
“There was being interrogated by the police in the emergency department, while I got the bullet stuck in my shoulder,” Ferran said. “And going back to the same neighborhood where I got shot and experiencing hallucinations and experiencing paranoia.”
Fortunately, a couple weeks after the shooting, he was approached by a social worker from Healing Hurt People (HHP), a decade-old hospital-based violence intervention program by Drexel University’s Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. The program offers continued support to victims of violence after release from the emergency department, in order to help them cope with PTSD and avoid re-injury and retaliation.
Ferran said the social worker provided counseling services, helping him talk through his pain and imagine a better life for himself. Ferran decided to set off on a different path, one guided by his Christian faith and a newfound dedication to making his community, and the city, a better place.
“The program helped me and that introduced myself to having a greater sense of purpose,” Ferran said. “And it helped me just to see my world differently. Now I love Philadelphia. I want to see Philadelphia transform.”
Environmental wellness is social wellness
Ferran was restored to the public school system for his senior year and graduated from Frankford High School in 2013. That summer, Ferran’s social worker at HHP helped him land his first job. UC Green Corp, a non-profit that provides environmental education and green job training to young adults, hired Ferran to plant and maintain street trees in West Philadelphia.
The job instilled in Ferran a passion for environmental stewardship.
“I love doing green work,” he said. “It brings me a sense of peace, being around trees. Planting a tree is pretty cool, and cleaning spaces, it makes me feel like, ‘Wow, voila!’”
Ferran continued to work for UC Green Corp the following three summers, while attending classes at Esperanza College during the rest of the year. As part of his new lease on life, he graduated with an associate’s degree in community services in 2015 and enrolled in Temple University’s social work program soon after. He graduated in May.
In April 2018, Ferran began organizing alleyway, block and park cleanups in Hunting Park, an effort he thought perfectly combined his interest in sustainability and social work. Nearly every weekend of that year, he texted friends, classmates and fellow parishioners from his church to join.
“That was the goal, to be consistent,” he said. “So people become more familiar with the work that you’re doing, so I become more familiar with the faces, so it’s a better way for me to pass out resources to people, especially if I know them.”
Ferran used the cleanings to get to know his neighbors and their needs, so he could point them toward community meetings, food drives, science fairs and other events and resources.
His efforts caught the attention of Leroy Fisher, president of Hunting Park United, an organization that aims to serve the community by revitalizing the park after which the neighborhood is named. Fisher offered his support, using his extensive network of contacts to help spread the word about Ferran’s cleanups. The two also joined forces to help organize the neighborhood’s first Martin Luther King Day of Service in 2018.
“His caring for the community and his dedication to making a change in people’s lives is something that’s infectious when you’re around him,” Fisher added. “I truly believe that myself and the residents of Hunting Park are lucky to have a young man of his caliber. If you could get one or two more of him, you could take over the world.”
Ferran also did community outreach for the Office of Sustainability’s Beat the Heat pilot program last summer, an initiative that aimed to mitigate the effects of global warming in Hunting Park, the neighborhood that experiences the highest temperatures in Philadelphia. As a so-called “heat ambassador,” Ferran tabled at neighborhood events and went door-to-door, giving out hand fans and water bottles to residents and asking them to fill out surveys about how they cope with heat.
During that time, Ferran realized that two of the environmental problems Hunting Park struggles with most—litter and high heat—are closely linked. The City of Philadelphia’s CleanPHL program produced a map in 2018, called the Litter Index, that rates the amount of litter in each Philadelphia neighborhood on a scale of 1 to 4. Similarly, Beat the Heat came out with its own map (page 7) to show how much the temperatures in each neighborhood deviates from the average.
“When somebody showed me the heat index map and also the litter index, it’s like ‘Wow, look at just one portion of North Philadelphia,’” he said. “You see that the density is all in one area.”
In other words, in both maps, Hunting Park experienced abnormally high litter density and high heat. That’s no surprise—Hunting Park is a key example of a worldwide trend: communities that are economically disadvantaged and mostly inhabited by people of color also suffer the worst environmental abuses. 56% of Hunting Park residents are Hispanic and 46% are African American. And the neighborhood, according to 2018 U.S. Census data, experiences a staggering 47 percent poverty rate, compared to the citywide average of 25.7 percent.
That’s why, in Ferran’s mind, social work and sustainability work go hand-in-hand. Solving one solves the other, and both accomplish the same mission: strengthening marginalized communities.
“They’re correlated. They’re connected,” he said. “To address environmental, you have to have social. Social wellness comes from environmental. And environmental wellness could also affect social wellness.”
The role of cleaning and greening in trauma healing
Also connected to environmental wellness? Emotional wellness, a cause Ferran cares about deeply. After receiving life-changing support from HHP, he worked there from 2015 to this year as a certified peer specialist and trainer, offering guidance to young people who also suffered violent injuries.
He also uses his love of self-expression to help others tell stories about their trauma. Since 2014, he’s helped facilitate UrStorytellers, a program run by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services that teaches victims of violence how to share their experiences.
And this summer, he teamed up with HHP again to produce a six-week social media campaign called #OurWordsHeal. The series of videos features Ferran and others telling their stories of resilience in order to answer one core question: “How do you help people share their inspiring stories to inspire others and decrease stigma around mental health?” Ferran said.
With his plate full of projects like these, why spend his spare time cleaning up trash and planting trees? Because those cleanups, and other anti-blight efforts, play a direct role in helping people heal. And healing is much needed in Philadelphia, a city with a disturbing amount of shootings similar to Ferran’s. When it comes to rates of aggravated assault by gun, the city experienced a 5 percent increase between 2017 and 2018—from 2,207 victims to 2,327, according to Philadelphia Police Department data.
Research suggests that a person’s environment can make or break their mental health. In fact, a 2012 study conducted in Philadelphia found that vacant lots—which accumulate trash and overgrown vegetation—contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety and shame in the residents nearby, emotions also associated with trauma. Cleaning those lots, eliminating blight and introducing greenery in neighborhoods, therefore, can help improve the wellness of trauma victims and the neighborhood in general.
It’s something Ferran has witnessed firsthand. Planting trees in Hunting Park has brought pure joy to his neighbors’ lives. One day, while planting street trees with a group of volunteers, Ferran said that residents who saw them from their windows came outside to help.
“It’s like adding furniture to their houses,” he said. “They get so hyped about it. Like, ‘man, I can’t wait to see how it looks after it’s done.’”
And for Ferran, cleaning and greening Hunting Park has finally given him what he longed for as a lost teenager.
“It’s interesting, I would clean up a block and I’d look back it like, I feel like I live on that block,” he said. “It brings me a sense of belonging.”
Photos by Liyiran (Shelly) Xia