Monday, June 7, 2010

N. First Street Prosperity Garden Ready for Teen Caretakers

Raised beds of rich compost and soil line all sides of the red granite pathway on the once vacant city lot on N. First Street near downtown Champaign.  Orange and yellow marigolds decorate the newly forming garden’s perimeter and mulch is carefully laid around the flowers to keep weeds out and moisture in.

The 14 beds await the hands of teens from the JUMP program at the  Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club who, for the first time today, will make the short walk from the Club to what is now known as the N. First Street Prosperity Garden.

The teens are the keepers of the garden.  JUMP, which stands for Juvenile Upward Mobility Program, is a program of the Club that works with at-risk youth ages 13-18.   The teens will plant the garden, harvest the produce, learn how to cook it and sell some of it at the Farmer's Market on Historic N. First Street which begins its new season on Thursday.

HOBY teens at the N. First Street Prosperity Garden on Saturday.

To get the garden infrastructure in place, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, one of the project partners, solicited the help of 50 teens from HOBY, the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership project, and organized a work party this past weekend.

“Every muscle in my body is aching today,” Valerie McWilliams told me in a follow-up email.  McWilliams is the managing attorney at Land of Lincoln.

Her sore muscles and the muscles of 70 or so volunteers this weekend were how the compost and soil got from huge piles in the city’s parking lot to the garden.  The HOBY teens, all sophomores from high schools throughout Illinois, were there before the rectangular wooden planks arrived that make up the beds.  There was plenty to do while they waited.

Some teens weeded the rain garden near Land of Lincoln. Others spread newspaper rolls on the grass alongside the path before the mulch was scattered. 

The project has been two years in the making. It was just last week, June 1, that Champaign City Council approved a license agreement between the city and the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club for free use of the land.

TJ Blakeman, city planner in the advanced planning division of the city of Champaign, who was lifting dirt along with the rest this weekend, explained how the project came to be.

“It started with the Land of Lincoln and Valerie McWilliams and other businesses along N. First Street and we started having this conversation about putting a garden, a flower garden and vegetable garden on 1st Street to kind of tie-in with the farmer’s market but also just kind of beautify the street,” Blakeman said.  “So we worked on that for about a year.  Each organization that was pulled in – the Park District, the U of I Extension, the city, the N. First Street Business Association – none of us had the resources to really tackle the issue.  It kind of lagged for a little while but then the Boys and Girls Club stepped forward and Sonya Lynch (JUMP program coordinator) said that she could get a grant to get a coordinator to manage the garden which is exactly what we needed. “

On Saturday Lynch said that things were “fantastic” and moving right along. 

"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."

Sonya Lynch (l) and HOBY volunteer at the N. First Street Prosperity Garden on Saturday, June 5, 2010.

To learn more about the evolution of this garden, please visit N. First Street Community Garden Aims to Feed Spirits, Minds and Bodies.

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.