September 25 — 11:33 am, 2002

A ‘Changemaker’ in West Philadelphia

Congratulations to Vivianne Nachmias, the Notebook's Southwest Region 'Changemaker for Schools.'

Nachmias is a dedicated volunteer at Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, and chair of the Garden Court Neighborhood Association’s Education Committee. She became involved at Lea after retiring from her job as a professor of cell biology at the University of Pennsylvania, continuing a connection with the school that started when her daughter was a student there in the 1960s.

Known to students at Lea as "Dr. Vivianne," Nachmias volunteers at the school in so many ways that a fellow volunteer, Kathy Eisenberg says, "It is hard to keep track of all the different things she is involved with."

Identifying literacy programs as "crucial," Nachmias organizes an annual book drive through the Garden Court Neighborhood Association that gives all first graders at Lea a book of their choice to read with a volunteer and then take home. She is hoping to expand the program to other grades.

She is also an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutor at Lea and a volunteer at Saturday morning tutoring sessions initiated by Lea’s principal, Mike Silverman.

While this would be a full schedule for many people, literacy-related projects are just one focus for Nachmias.

Perhaps her most stunning achievement began with her idea to create a garden in what had been a small concrete courtyard in a back corner of the school.

The result, the Lea School Garden, was created in 1999. Building the garden was truly a collaborative effort. Lea students submitted designs for the garden which University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture students then used to make the final design. West Philadelphia High School students constructed the garden beds and pond. Local businesses offered financial support. And Lea’s art teacher, students, and a parent created the garden’s vibrant murals and stepping stones made from found objects.

Now students and teachers can find a hidden oasis behind the school where nature is in full swing.

Nachmias tends the garden and has a "garden club" for students. Depending on the season, students can plant bulbs, water the plants, catch butterflies, examine earthworms, observe goldfish, and even eat raspberries right off the bush. Teachers bring their classes to the garden for special lessons.

Nachmias uses the garden to teach students about science, her area of expertise.

She also shares her knowledge of science through "Saturday Science" classes for fifth and sixth graders and an after-school science club for second graders. In these classes she emphasizes hands-on approaches to learning about science.

Modest about her role, Nachmias offers thanks to the teachers, parents, and other volunteers at Lea, especially the Saturday morning tutors, who have helped with all of these efforts.

She also gives advice to other people interested in volunteering in schools. "As a community member," Nachmias says, "probably the best approach is to get to know one school because schools are such communities unto themselves."

Any one of her projects is great evidence of how such an approach can have tremendous benefits for a school and its students.

Nachmias is always looking for volunteers to help at Lea. If you are interested in volunteering for Saturday morning tutoring sessions, helping with the garden, or donating books (especially picture books), contact her at (215) 748-4689 or

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