On a cool Saturday, Ben Countz, Serena Viera and Joanna Yoder prepared to battle trash.
They loaded themselves into a van and trailer and ventured to Nectarine Street on Allison Hill to collect two couches and a dresser.
Countz and Yoder manhandled the couch into the trailer then Countz navigated the narrow streets on the way to the incinerator. Back on 13th Street, Christina Herman wheeled her two daughters, ages 2 and 3, down the street, picking up trash as she went.
You might call this a typical day in the life of Wildheart Ministries, a youthful Christian group that operates out of the historic A. Carson Stamm Mansion on S. 13th Street.
Christina and her husband Tannon arrived in Harrisburg five years ago, joining a group of young missionaries who had settled into the mansion, calling themselves Burn 24-7. When that group relocated to California, the Hermans stayed behind, purchasing the mansion and starting their own organization.
“We felt called to stay here in Harrisburg, specifically Allison Hill,” said Christina. “We have a heart to see it transformed.”
The first transformation involved their own building, a stately, 109-year-old Georgian Revival built originally for a prominent Harrisburg attorney. The house—20 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms spread across 11,000 square feet—was in a state of disrepair.
“When we moved into the mansion, it was not a very pretty place,” Tannon Herman said.
Years of painting, fixing and rebuilding followed, repairing and wiping away decades of neglect. Today, Wildheart consists of four staff members, who can best be described as full-time community organizers, and three other mission-minded folks, who live in the house.
As a key part of its ministry, Wildheart began “Love the Hill,” an ambitious, five-year project to clean up Allison Hill.
In the summer of 2017, they took to the alley behind the mansion and started digging into the abandoned garages, filled with garbage from floor to ceiling. At first, the group used their own money to dump the trash.
“Our thought was we have a little bit of money,” said Christina. “All the bulk items, we just started taking in our trailers and dumping it ourselves and paying for it.”
The city Department of Public Works dropped in one day to see the goings-on and decided to haul the trash for free, as long as it was easily accessible for the employees and equipment.
So far, the group, with some 400 volunteers including many Allison Hill neighbors, has removed more than 1 million pounds of trash from the streets.
“We couldn’t do this without our neighbors being on board,” Countz said. “It’s not like we started this. I mean we are a part of it, but there have been so many people who have been doing this [in the city] and getting no credit.”
Tannon Herman said that their neighbors all find a way to contribute.
“When we go out on the street, the neighbors say, ‘Sweet, what are we doing today?’” he said.
If folks can’t help haul trash, they provide water, encouragement and, on sweltering summer days, popsicles.
Wildheart made the decision to remove trash based on Tri-County Community Action’s 2015 “Heart of the Hill” report, which noted that residents felt besieged by dumping and blighted, vacant buildings.
Blighted buildings not only held tons of trash, they provided a place for dealing and using drugs. So Wildheart has been boarding them up.
So, how does the group pay for all this? Donations primarily, along with its newest venture—Pure Bean coffee roastery, run out of the mansion’s low-ceilinged cellar. Like most of what Wildheart does, it’s a bit different.
The beans are air roasted, a technique rarely used, according to Countz, who does the roasting.
“We are in the minority of how coffee roasting is mostly done,” he said.
Unlike drum roasting, the chaff isn’t burned but blown away as the bean expands and releases it. The process creates a smoother, less bitter, less acidic coffee, he said. The ethically sourced, small-batch coffee can be purchased online or at the mansion.
As a shout-out to the neighborhood, 10 percent of all sales of their Love the Hill blend go to support their work.
Coffee and cleanups represent only parts of Wildheart’s ministry.
Quarterly block parties, Mondays at the Mansion worship and food distribution round out the group’s efforts. In addition, other organizations use the property for their events.
“We are increasingly getting more involved in collaborative efforts,” Tannon Herman said. “Part of the struggle of the neighborhood is there’s a lot of people doing good things, but not too many people doing good things together.”
Shirley Blanton, who’s resided in Allison Hill for 25 years, agrees that collaboration is necessary.
“You can’t do anything by yourself,” she said. “You need connection.”
One neighborhood resident thought so highly of Wildheart’s mission that he joined the house.
Quamell Durden discovered Wildheart through its outdoor worship. Curious, he ventured over, eventually joined the work crews, and, in June, entered the house to participate in its vision.
“It helped me to gain, basically, my happiness back,” he said.
Wildheart’s mission is to bring some happiness and hope to its neighborhood of Allison Hill.
Standing on the stoop of her home on the corner of Swatara and Nectarine streets, Leslie Defrank had only good words to say about the young people living in the mansion.
“Tannon and his family have been great to us and the neighborhood,” she said.
Wildheart Ministries is located at 333 S. 13th St., Harrisburg. They will hold their annual Neighborhood Harvest Party on Oct. 27. For more information, to volunteer or donate, visit www.wildheartministries.net.