Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Bringing healing, justice, wholeness to people and communities.

July 29, 2011

Dear Friend of LSSI:

Lately, I've learned that so much more grows in a garden besides vegetables and flowers.

The garden at our Buddy House, located in Blackhawk Courts, a public housing complex on the east side of Rockford, has helped create a sense of community, pride, hope and possibilities for the people living there, especially for the kids. 

Top photo: From left: Brian Besper, Janice Carpenter (LSSI staff), and Angie Williams with vegetables from the Buddy House garden, including bok choy, a favorite. Angie and husband Brian, a professional chef, live in an apartment that overlooks the garden. They watch over the garden and care for it almost every day. Bottom photo: McKenzie Lewis, 10, a Blackhawk Courts resident, loves working in the garden. She says, "The garden made people happier... It's a community garden where everyone comes together." 

Left photo: Panama Russey, garden coordinator at Buddy House, helps two little boys pull weeds. Panama's technical expertise is available to Buddy House, thanks to a grant. Right photo: Kristina McKeown, an LSSI AmeriCorps member, listens as Donovan Horton, 10, practices reading aloud in the Buddy House learning room.

In 2007, with the help of the Rockford Housing Authority, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois opened Buddy House, a desperately needed support and advocacy center for families living at Blackhawk Courts. Many of these families have loved ones in prison and are dealing with the stresses of incarceration and separation.

In the midst of all the chaos, violence and noise at Blackhawk, Buddy House is a safe haven, an oasis.

Open weekdays from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., the kids can get a healthy snack, help with their homework and receive caring attention from the staff and volunteers who work at Buddy House. During the summer, there are also special activities for the kids sponsored by the Rockford Park District, including trips to a local pool.   

And the adults love coming here, too, for quiet, for support and a place to read to their kids. Buddy House is also a place where adults who aren't working can volunteer and fulfill their community service requirements to help pay their rent. And with a little encouragement, maybe think about a starting a new life outside of public housing.

So what about the garden? Three years ago, at the suggestion of a teenage girl who thought a community garden would be a great way to give the youth at Blackhawk summer jobs and grow food for cash-strapped families, we started the garden. Ruth Fairchild, who directs our Prisoner and Family Ministry programs in Rockford and whose Mississippi grandma raised her on gardening, took the idea and ran with it.

People living in housing projects like Blackhawk don't have access to produce, and with incredibly limited incomes, they can't afford it. And that's where the garden comes in.

To get the garden going, LSSI connected with the Angelic Organics Learning Center (AOLC) in Caledonia, whose people have trained Blackhawk residents -- especially the youth -- to plant and care for the garden. AOLC's mission is to help urban and rural people build local food systems. They also teach people how to cook the nutritious food they are growing and also how to bring it to market.

We started small with our garden, but a little bit grew into a whole lot. Today, we've got 10 raised beds next to Buddy House, and near the end of the complex, there's a huge 170 ft. x 50 ft. garden.

What's growing here? Everything from bok choy to strawberries to baby collard greens.

McKenzie Lewis, 10, who lives at Blackhawk, has worked in the garden just about every day for the past two years. She says, "I love to plant and weed. I honestly love to do everything about the garden, 'cause it gives me something to do other than just run around and play." What's McKenzie's favorite thing about the garden? That people who don't have money to buy food can just go there and take what they need.

There's more. Thanks to AOLC's Urban Initiative/Roots and Wings program, young men like Jovon Garrett are trained and learn to motivate, educate and inspire other youth to be leaders and role models in their communities. The kids living at Blackhawk learn there's another way to make money besides selling drugs. And, as Ruth says, "There's no fight over a tomato." 

This garden is a visible sign of hope in a place that's often hopeless. Danica Hoehn, Roots and Wings program director, says "Right outside their door, the garden gives these kids a place to explore that is positive. It gives them a place to absorb some of their wonder."

On the fourth Saturday of the month, the youth go to Rockford's North End Commons Farmers' Market to sell some of their produce. And on September 22, the kids will once again take a charter bus (thanks, Rockford Kiwanis!) to the Black Farmers Market at Chicago's Navy Pier to sell what they've grown. Last year when they went, they sold every vegetable.

There's so much more to share with you about this amazing project that grew from an idea -- literally, from seeds. See what can happen when we have faith and persistence?

In faith,

The Rev. Denver Bitner, D.Min.

P.S. Interested in learning more about Buddy House and the garden? Watch for the fall issue of Eye on LSSI, which will include a feature story about this great program. Buddy House will be included in a film produced by Green Living Project about the work of Angelic Organics Learning Center that will premiere later this fall. We'll keep you updated!



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More than vegetables growing in this garden
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