Woman helps neighborhood, kids through street corner garden
This community Garden, a grassroots initiative of the woman, Ericka Wright, and local environmentalist, Marty Kraft, has turned a weedy vacant lot into a neighborhood asset.
The neighborhood is urban, made up of older homes, some privately owned, some Section 8 government housing, and historically an area reflecting lower incomes, crime and racial division.
Wright, who lives with her mother next door to the lot, said her mother obtained custody of her brother's children in 2001. The arrival of the grandchildren made the house a "kid magnet" for the neighborhood.
Wright's mother operates a daycare out of the house, providing breakfast, lunch and snacks. When the children from the neighborhood started coming over frequently to play, "Well, we couldn't send them home hungry," Wright said. "I knew that empty lot next door was owned by Rockhurst University, so I went to talk to (Jesuit) Father Ed Kinerk, the president. I asked him if we could use the land as an entrepreneur project for the neighborhood, and he said sure.
"Momma had a garden for us when we were kids, and I wanted a garden for the neighborhood. I thought if the kids could plant something, see it growing and then harvest and eat it, they could say 'We did this.' That's building pride."
The first year Wright, assisted by several students from Rockhurst University and some of the neighborhood youth, laid out the garden and raised vegetable beds. "You know how kids get hungry playing outdoors. We planted stuff they could pull up, rinse off and eat: carrots, cucumbers, corn, lettuce and tomatoes," Wright said. "We used snow shovels to dig the beds that first year, because we were not equipped. Now we have enough vegetables to sell to the neighborhood. And it's all organic."
The idea sprouted, bloomed and has reaped much for Wright and the kids.
"It's so much fun to learn new things about nature," she said.
The third year she took the kids on a field trip to shuck wheat. "Did you know it takes almost one half of a paper grocery sack of shucked wheat to make one loaf of bread? "We try to do almost everything on-site," Wright said. "I try to have the kids harvest vegetables while customers are here. Sometimes adults get impatient with them, but the kids have to learn. They are learning marketing, accounting, math, reading and science, and how to behave with integrity, how to conduct themselves around adults and other children. I tell them there is no such word as 'can't' in my vocabulary, and it shouldn't be in theirs."
Healthy eating is important to Wright. The Central Missouri State University graduate has battled muscular dystrophy and other health problems for most of her 39 years. She jokes that the kids who work for her know that "if they misbehave, and act the fool I'll chase them on my scooter! No, actually I discipline them through their paycheck. They each get a $200 stipend through grants, including one from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. But if they don't show up for work, I deduct it from their paycheck. The grants also help with school uniforms for my workers who go to Hogan Preparatory Academy, Southeast and Central high schools. Rockhurst University also donates school supplies to my workers. "Most of the kids live with an auntie or grandparent, or in a single parent home, and money is hard to find," Wright said. "The stipend helps keep the kids from feeling embarrassed around their friends, which can lead to stealing or worse. They'll have a little money to buy those expensive shoes they all have to have to be cool."
The Troostwood Community Garden is assisted by local organic grower John Kaiahua in conjunction with the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture. Kaiahua, who owns JJ Farms in Raytown, assists with the production and sales of the vegetables at a market stall on the corner of the lot. The season goes from May 20 through early October.
Wright says the garden is a community in and of itself. "We don't plant corn anymore because we found out that our community needs it more than we do," she said with a chuckle. “We don’t know if it was squirrels, raccoons, possums or birds, but we suspect a raccoon. The corn was neatly shucked and the husks left on the ground. “We have a strip of native Missouri prairie on the outside of the garden. The prairie attracts its own insects. So we really don’t have a bug problem in the garden. But we still wash everything. White butterflies are nobody’s friend.
“Each year we try to plant one thing the kids have never eaten before. Like yellow squash. We learned how to cook them too. It’s fun to hear a little girl tell her mother, ‘Oh Momma, try this!’ This year we planted radishes, lettuce, collards, peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes, beets, garlic, zucchini and bell peppers and, of course plenty of tomatoes, including ultrasonic tomatoes — they’re green zebra-striped.”
Rockhurst University plans to allow Wright the use of the lot behind the community garden next year, which will double the planting area. The Wrights already use land owned by Wright’s mother to the north of the house for some of the produce.
The children are growing as well as the garden, Wright said. They are able to participate in a literacy program operated through Rockhurst, and each has an individual tutor. The kids have participated in basketball camps and attended several Royals baseball games. The interaction between the kids and adults and between diverse races in the neighborhood has helped break down stereotypes and racial barriers, Wright said.
“These kids want a future. They know you’re only as poor as you want to be.”
Wright said she has found her niche in life. “I really sleep well at night.”
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Key(http://catholickey.org/), official newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.
This is an addition to my above post....This morning I was reading Dave's Garden and found this piece about the book The Secret Garden. This is a favorite book and movie of mine. I love the thought of a secret garden. Maybe you would like to check it out. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/