In gardening circles, come fall, sinking hands into the soil to pull up the last harvest of beets, carrots and turnips, or pluck pumpkins, plus winter squash from the vine, or in summer pick and eat that first ripe tomato, is the joy of edible gardening.
And, anyone can do it, as gardening is for all.
To that end, in spring, Sugar Beet Schoolhouse created its All Ages, All Abilities Community Garden at the Park District of Oak Park’s Cheney Mansion.
A few blocks west, working the soils in the raised garden beds behind Hephzibah Home are the 26 children, all wards of the state, tending to the nonprofit’s Alex Anderson Memorial Garden, which re-emerged in 2014.
Both nonprofits donate all, or a portion of their bounty to the Oak Park and River Forest Food Pantry.
They say it is how their community of gardeners personally grow, by giving back to a good cause.
“These two groups have been growing lots of fresh vegetables for us, and it is great,” says Adriana Riano, nutrition coordinator at the food pantry. “They come and bring the produce every Wednesday, things like fresh lettuce, Swiss chard, kale…just anything. It is very, very healthy vegetables for our clients.”
Growing to give, giving to grow…
In its first year, Cheryl Muñoz, executive director of the Sugar Beet Schoolhouse says her collaborative and community-building gardening initiative has been a labor of learning and love.
“Clearly, I cannot do this on my own, so I enlisted volunteers through the support of community partners such as Oak Leyden, West Suburban Special Recreation Association, Opportunity Knocks, and we also have support from Concordia’s Gerontology Center, and through the Oak Park Township Senior Services and we also have a great lending library through the library system in Oak Park,” Muñoz said.
Every Wednesday is volunteer day in this community garden.
“Sugar Beet Schoolhouse came to us, and other organizations like us, wanting to know if we wanted to help contribute to the Oak Park Food Pantry by planting a garden,” said Marjorie Wynkoop-Sullivan, who works at Oak-Leyden Developmental Services assessing the abilities of its clients. “We have been involved with the local food pantry in the past, where we’ve had participants volunteer there taking stock off of the trucks. So we wanted to get back again. We are very grateful that other organizations have given to us and we just wanted to pay it forward.”
The young adults in Oak Leyden’s “day program,” she says, live with a wide variety of intellectual and physical disabilities, “which means they don’t learn things as quickly as other people do and they just need more assistance maneuvering through life.
“In our population, of course, exercise is something that is definitely important, and when you garden you do get exercise,” she said. “But it also teaches them where food comes from, too. Taking care of the earth, taking care of what we have here, and making sure that we’re learning how things grow.”
Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah Children’s Association, says that at Hephzibah Home, the 26 children who live on-site, and who are now part of their gardening crew, are “from all over the state of Illinois, and are children who need time to heal and take care of themselves.
“Most of the kids had absolutely no idea that you would plant a seed in the ground and a carrot would grow,” Brown said. “And, they could pick a carrot and take it into the kitchen, or even just stand out here and eat it.”
The children being able to tend to the garden with the assist of adult volunteers from the Oak Park Auxiliary has been fruitful.
“For our kids, gardening provides a sense of order for them,” Brown said. “They plant something, it begins to grow, then they can watch it grow and that is something they have not had in their lives: A sense of structure. If you do this, you can get these kinds of results. So, that is incredible.”
Molly Philosophos, Hephzibah’s development director, says the project grew out of her participation in the Oak Park Community Foundation’s Leadership Program. In collaboration with other adult students, it was a class project, and they tapped Seamus Ford of A Root Riot Urban Garden Network to add a fence and “dig out about a foot and a half of the dirt that was there, and bring in really good soil. Those two things really allowed us to have a much better garden, than was here in years’ past,” Philosophos said.
In the spring, Munoz says she is planning to grow her programming with more gardening, more community volunteerism and more education for everyone.
“This year we donated over 700 pounds of food to the Oak Park –River Forest Food Pantry,” she says. “I would like to see the park district really wrap their arms around this project, and consider this as a way of providing recreation — a different type of recreation to all of our citizens here.”