Thursday, April 15, 2010

N. First Street Community Garden Aims to Feed Spirits, Minds and Bodies

Sonya Lynch, program director at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, and her son stand in front of a vacant city lot in Champaign that will feed minds, spirits and bodies of area youth this summer.

Lynch, an avid gardener, is part of a new collaborative community garden effort that's part of an even larger plan to revitalize N. First Street in downtown Champaign and promote development -- all kinds of development.

Access to local food is one issue the North First Street Association and the city of Champaign have worked together to address, including the formation of a farmer's market last year on N. First Street.

In an arrangement between the city and the North First Street Association, the vacant lot across from Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation on north First Street is about to be turned into the N. First Street Prosperity Garden and it will be cared for by the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.

One of those deeply involved in the project is Valerie McWilliams who is the managing attorney at Land of Lincoln. McWilliams said her organization got involved because it wants "to be a good neighbor and this seems like an obvious tool to promote good childhood nutrition and teach kids valuable lessons that will serve them the rest of their lives."

McWilliams needed the right person to work with the youth on gardening.  Someone who is "very passionate about getting this garden up and running." 

Enter Lynch.

"I like to expose my youth to as many things as possible that are not the normal types of things," said Lynch. "They would not normally think of gardening as a way to become an entrepreneur."

Lynch coordinates a program called JUMP (Juvenile Upward Mobility Program) that works with at-risk youth ages 13-18. The youth from JUMP and three other groups will plant the garden, harvest the produce, learn how to cook it and sell some of it at the Historic North First Street Farmer's Market this summer.

"I hope that some of the children will become interested in gardening and nutrition as well as their families," Lynch said. "Maybe they'll even grow food at home when they realize it's not too hard. They can even grow it in a pot."

Master gardener Sandra Mason of the U of I Extension Master Gardeners, one of the project initiators, will help develop the curriculum with Lynch, and work alongside the kids.  "Kids don't really understand where their food comes from," said Mason.  "People just see the end of the process. There are life lessons in gardening including delayed gratification, teamwork and entrepreneurship."

[Left: Sandy Mason, U of I Extension Master Gardeners and TJ Blakeman, city of Champaign, stand on vacant land that will be turned into a community garden]

As currently envisioned, the garden will be planted in two-foot raised beds with plenty of walkways for children to get up close and personal with the earth and eventually their plants. 

"We do a lot of good projects," Mason said, "but to me this one feels like things are really coming together.  This is one of the best things we do.  We're not just making the world pretty, but growing produce and improving lives."

The land, which is right next to railroad tracks, used to be owned by Texas Oil, according to TJ Blakeman, city planner in the advanced planning division of the city of Champaign, as well as one of the project initiators along with Mason and David Freeman, also a master gardener.   Raised beds will avoid disturbing the soil, which according to a 1991 report found by the city, contained no harmful substances.  Just to be sure, the city will do more sampling at three feet and six feet depths, according to Blakeman. 

The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, also involved in the project, serves many low-income people including people with disabilities, seniors and families. Darlene Kloeppel, social services director at the Commission, regularly assesses community needs and one of the things Kloeppel found is that "a lot of things are pointing to the fact that people do need basic needs taken care of," she said.  "Money for transportation, housing and food." 

Kloeppel secured a grant to pay for a project coordinator to work under Lynch and for stipends to pay the youth for their gardening.   Eventually, the youth will sell their produce at the farmer's market on N. First Street.

For more information on this project, contact McWilliams at or 217-356-1351.

Kimberlie Kranich, author of this blog post, is director of community engagement at Illinois Public Media and may be reached at kranich@illinois or 217-244-5072.

1 comment:

  1. What a great project! We would love for someone from C-U Fit Families to come on WEFT one Sunday from 3-4pm on our program Food for Thought. We can prerecord a show or do it live. Let me know if you are interested. Thanks!