Close Subscribe

Get the Weekly Recap!!

Get recaps, exclusive offers, stories and discounts. We’ll never share your email address and you can opt out at any time, we promise.

Some people adopt highways. This woman adopted a Philadelphia island and named it the “Isle of Jean.”
Water

Some people adopt highways. This woman adopted a Philadelphia island and named it the “Isle of Jean.”

An island on the Schuylkill receives some TLC and a new name thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers.

Jean Knight bought herself an early holiday gift this year: a bright blue, 110-inch pool skimmer. 

It’s not a conventional present. But adopting an island on the banks of the Schuylkill River isn’t exactly conventional. And that’s precisely what Knight did three years ago, when she began organizing cleanups of the 2.2 acre parcel of land adjoining Fairmount Water Works Trail and Boardwalk – what’s now known as the Isle of Jean

“Other people adopt highways. I adopted an island,” says Knight. “Since the island didn’t have a name, I named it after me.” 

On a crisp Sunday morning in late November, Knight and a small group of volunteers wielded the new pool skimmer and trash-grabbers, collecting litter on and around her eponymous island. Within two hours, a heap of trash bags stuffed with styrofoam, plastic bottles, and the occasional electronic device line the end of the boardwalk, where Knight has arranged for pickup by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.   

“The island itself is like a big sieve, and it floods often,” Knight says. “When the water gets high, the trees on the island just pull out all the debris that floats down in storms.”  

The area first caught Knight’s eye during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and a group of friends gathered for weekly happy hour at nearby Cosmic Cafe. 

“She would look over at the island and say, ‘somebody should really take care of that,’” remembers Niel McDowell, a volunteer who has participated in the cleanups each spring and fall since they began. “I think she felt that this was some kind of tangible thing that you could actually make progress on after a couple of hours.”

The “Isle of Jean”. Photo: Stephanie Ostroff

Stepping in to protect the island 

Knight is a lecturer in the Spanish Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has worked for nearly 25 years. Over that same span of time, she’s planted hundreds of trees through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) Tree Tenders program. Knight says she felt a desire to give back after receiving free training through Tree Tenders. She initially set a goal of planting a tree for every year of her life, but when she breezed past that benchmark, she sought new ways to contribute. Eliminating litter was a natural fit.     

“I should’ve worked in sanitation,” she says. “I’m a compulsive trash picker-upper.”

“If we don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it.”

Amy Lent

Setting her sights on the island behind Lloyd Boathouse, Knight decided to post a sign on the boardwalk: “If you want this place to be cleaner, show up on Saturday.” People did – and so did an unexpected onlooker.

Schuylkill River cleanup isle of Jean
Photo: Stephanie Ostroff

“The first year we did it, we started cleaning and an American bald eagle flew to the island, sat on top of a dead tree, and watched us,” she says. “It felt like a benediction.” 

Three years in, Knight’s biannual cleanups typically draw 10-15 volunteers. She now organizes them via email, but welcomes inspired bystanders. Amy Lent is one such passerby-turned-cleaner. A longtime volunteer with Schuylkill Banks, she showed up for her first island cleanup in November after stumbling upon the group collecting litter last spring.

“I happened to be walking by, and I’m like, ‘thank you for figuring it out,’ you know, because this is something that needs doing. And if we don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it,” Lent says. “Aren’t we lucky to live in such a beautiful city? We are. I’m answering that question. We are lucky. So we have to do what we can.”

Raising awareness for a ripple effect  

Knight has looped in support not only from civically minded neighbors, but institutions like the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

A note she left on a PWD windshield alerting the organization to trash buildup in the channel between the island and Schuylkill Banks resulted in action. Last September, PWD partnered with Parks & Recreation to bring a team into the water in waders, clearing the debris. 

Knight had previously connected with Parks & Recreation when she began organizing cleanups, asking if the island she intended to adopt had a name. 

“The guy I talked to just laughed. He said, ‘Well, half of us call it the island behind Lloyd Boathouse. And the other half of us call it Silty Island because it’s got a lot of silt,’” says Knight. “And I said, ‘Can I name it if I clean it?’”

Knight got the green light, provided she doesn’t ask for a sign (that goes beyond the department’s budget, she was told). Formal recognition of the Isle of Jean online, thanks to volunteer Rob Weber, is milestone enough for her. 

“Rob came to clean one time and said, ‘I’m going to get you on Google Maps,’” explains Knight. “I don’t know how Rob did it, but it didn’t take him very long. And he did it on his cellphone while cleaning with the other hand.”

Weber aimed to increase awareness of the island and access to cleanups by making things official. He and other volunteers posted photos and reviews to complete the Isle of Jean listing.   

cleanup on isle of jean
Cleanup for the “Isle of Jean.” Photo: Stephanie Ostroff

“It’s an important little piece of land in Philly. A little respite,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure it was something people knew existed, but also that it was easy to get to for people to do the cleanup.” 

Though Knight’s team of volunteers, who she calls her “minions,” have long joked about the island’s name, the validation online feels significant. 

“It’s a rush,” she laughs. “It’s a beautiful thing. And then you feel very possessive of it. Don’t you put trash on my island!”

Knight hopes more people will feel called to “adopt” and care for other neglected corners of Philadelphia. 

“As I look around the city, I see all sorts of places people could adopt and name after themselves,” she says. “I think the medians in Spring Garden are ripe for naming.”

Cover photo: Jean Knight

Become a Supporter!

If you love what we do you can support our mission with a one-time or monthly contribution.
array(3) {
  [0]=>
  object(WP_Term)#8507 (10) {
    ["term_id"]=>
    int(4196)
    ["name"]=>
    string(12) "Isle of Jean"
    ["slug"]=>
    string(12) "isle-of-jean"
    ["term_group"]=>
    int(0)
    ["term_taxonomy_id"]=>
    int(4204)
    ["taxonomy"]=>
    string(8) "post_tag"
    ["description"]=>
    string(0) ""
    ["parent"]=>
    int(0)
    ["count"]=>
    int(1)
    ["filter"]=>
    string(3) "raw"
  }
  [1]=>
  object(WP_Term)#8508 (10) {
    ["term_id"]=>
    int(3509)
    ["name"]=>
    string(16) "Schuylkill Banks"
    ["slug"]=>
    string(16) "schuylkill-banks"
    ["term_group"]=>
    int(0)
    ["term_taxonomy_id"]=>
    int(3517)
    ["taxonomy"]=>
    string(8) "post_tag"
    ["description"]=>
    string(0) ""
    ["parent"]=>
    int(0)
    ["count"]=>
    int(2)
    ["filter"]=>
    string(3) "raw"
  }
  [2]=>
  object(WP_Term)#8505 (10) {
    ["term_id"]=>
    int(4197)
    ["name"]=>
    string(9) "Waterways"
    ["slug"]=>
    string(9) "waterways"
    ["term_group"]=>
    int(0)
    ["term_taxonomy_id"]=>
    int(4205)
    ["taxonomy"]=>
    string(8) "post_tag"
    ["description"]=>
    string(0) ""
    ["parent"]=>
    int(0)
    ["count"]=>
    int(2)
    ["filter"]=>
    string(3) "raw"
  }
}
Stephanie Ostroff loves exploring green spaces in and around Philly. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and has been published in National Geographic, Generocity, and Fathom. When she’s not writing, she works as a speech/language therapist at AIM Academy. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys getting lost in the Wissahickon, practicing yoga, and planning travel adventures. View all posts by Stephanie Ostroff
Green Philly

Featured
In These
Great Spots: