There's plenty about my life I can't change...But a patch of ground in this trashy lot--I can change that. Can change it big. --Wendell in the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleishman.
The city of Westminster has a 5,000-square-foot garden, well, plot of dirt at the moment, that has served as a community garden for local groups and organizations over the past few years.
This year the city is turning the land over to Human Service Programs (HSP) and HSP intends to cultivate more than just food in that dirt. In addition to tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, melons, turnips, green beans, kale and flowers, the organization hopes to develop relationships and instill a sense of pride in the people who make the garden grow.
According to HSP Deputy Director Holly Hutchins, the idea for the community garden grew out of conversations the city and local organizations were having to figure out how to engage people who "hang out" along the Main Street corridor.
The city and HSP have been working together to address local citizen and business owner concerns that "vagrants" are loitering on Main Street and creating problems.
"We were asking ourselves, 'What are things people can do to be productive?'" Hutchins, who is overseeing the garden program, said.
"We're looking at this as a component of Opportunity Works, our job readiness and life skills training program, so that's how we're getting more clients involved," Hutchins said. "We'd like to see our clients get 'paid' with produce, that will be their incentive to participate in addition to learning life skills."
HSP is well known for the services it provides to Carroll County's homeless individuals through its six shelters, but that only accounts for four percent of the people HSP serves. The bulk of HSP clients receive help with energy assistance, emergency services and family support.
The goals of this project, according to Hutchins, include providing an opportunity for people to gain access to healthy food, for people to learn life skills and for people from different parts of the community to work side by side for a common cause.
"We've seen with the success of Opportunity Works and Second Chances [life skills and job readiness programs], that sense of community and ownership that clients feel when they take ownership of something," Hutchins said. "Even clients living in a homeless shelter feel a sense of pride when they belong to something, when they are able to serve other people. This awesome empowerment happens."
Hutchins said she knew immediately that the project would only work if HSP had committed partners.
"We quickly realized not only can we not do this alone but if we tried to reap all the benefits of it, it would be a lot to take in," Hutchins said.
Some of the partners that came on board, including Stone Soup Foundation and Grace Lutheran Church, will use the food they grow to feed their own clients. Stone Soup Foundation is a soup kitchen providing meals to Carroll County residents and Grace Lutheran Church provides a hot meal to those in need in Westminster on Thursday evenings.
Hutchins said the partners will all work together to provide the workers and volunteers who will make the garden grow. Then each partner will reap the benefits, the food, and will give that food back to the community through their organization.
"Each program has its own pocket of people it's serving and connecting with," Hutchins said.
Eight local Girl Scout troops are growing seedlings that will be planted in the garden later in May and master gardeners from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension will volunteer their expertise.
Hutchins said that this Friday, aged manure will be added to the garden and it will be tilled. After that the seedlings will be planted.
"We stopped looking at the garden as 12 individual plots but truly a community garden where we're deciding as a group what to grow, making decisions about the garden as a whole," Hutchins said. "When it comes time to harvest the crops, we'll decide as a group who needs what out of the garden."
Hutchins said that right now she just wants to get through this first year with the garden. But in looking down the road she said she would like to see opportunities for clients to earn certifications through the Master Gardeners program/University of Maryland Extension Program.
In addition to potentially offering cooking classes and teaching people how to can the produce, Hutchins said she would like to explore the possible business opportunities that the garden could offer. She referred, for example, to a nonprofit in California that grew its own tomatoes and used them to make salsa and tomato sauce. The business has become profitable for the California organization.
"Really right now it's all about harnessing all this energy and getting it going in one direction," Hutchins said.