Home One community How a community garden in Washington has brought healing and opportunity to hundreds of young people

How a community garden in Washington has brought healing and opportunity to hundreds of young people

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TThree years ago, when Jevael German received his assignment under the Washington Summer Youth Employment Program, he wanted nothing to do with it. He would work with Project Eden, a community garden in the troubled southeast of the city – known for its police sirens far more than its produce.

A native of Washington himself, Mr. German dreaded months of toil in the damp neighborhood. He didn’t even like vegetables. As he met his supervisors on the first day, Mr. German laid his head face down on the desk.

“Sir, if you don’t want to be here, you can leave,” he heard back. “But you can’t put your head on the desk.”

Mr. German stayed, and the summer surprised him. He enjoyed outdoor work, which reminded him of his childhood gardening with his grandmother. As an older member of the summer group, he started mentoring some of his younger colleagues. He even started eating green vegetables.

At the end of the program, Mr. German asked to continue the Eden project for another summer. Upon his return, he learned that a former summer worker at the garden had died in a shootout. Mr. German, who was still living with one foot in the street at that time, saw this tragic death as a version of himself if he didn’t change.

“At that point, I was like, I have to get off the street alone,” he says.

Mr. German is one of hundreds of young people who have worked with Project Eden and have been the embodiment of its mission: to be a source of opportunity and healing in a community so often defined by limits and losses.

Almost 10 years ago, Cheryl Gaines, a local pastor, started the garden in response to the South Capitol Street massacre, one of the worst mass shootings in Washington in decades. His idea then, as now, was that no community should choose violence when it has another option. Since then, Ms. Gaines, her son Kwesi Billups and hundreds of local staff and volunteers have sought to provide such an option.

While simultaneously addressing the challenges of health, food insecurity and unemployment, Project Eden is basically an alternative. The work is seldom convenient and the resources are often low. But the heritage of the garden is that the seeds can grow on what may appear to be rocky ground – if only there is a sower.

“This garden gives you back what you give it,” Mr. Billups said.

Help a community resist despair

In 2012, Ms. Gaines was the sower of Project Eden, though unlikely at that.

She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father in public housing outside of New Orleans, only to trade that past for a career in law, and later ministry. While in seminary in Rochester, New York, she had a lingering vision that God was calling her to live in Southeast Washington, found a church, and plant a community garden.

In 2010, after living in the Washington area for years, she felt the time was right.

Leaving four dead and six others injured, the South Capitol Street massacre rocked the southeast and brought the community together to mourn. During a vigil, Ms. Gaines met the owner of a building a few blocks from the shooting. In this conversation, she finally shared her vision. Shortly after, the owner told her that she could use the backyard of her building.

On this land, two years later, Project Eden (“Eden” means everyone deserves to eat naturally) started out as a 10 by 20 foot plot, with only rows of plowed land. The following year, Ms. Gaines and her team transformed this plot into a 28ft by 48ft greenhouse, complete with aquaponics, and have since expanded to another location near the Presbyterian Faith Church.

A community garden may seem like a boutique project in some areas, but not in the Southeast, says Caroline Brewer, director of marketing and communications at the Audubon Naturalist Society, who recently named Mr. Billups its annual champion of the environment of black youth in Taking Nature.

The region is a food desert, she says, with one large grocery store for just over 80,000 residents. Many of those who live in Southeast Washington have one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country and the unemployment rate is 18%. The gaps left by limited opportunities and education are often filled by crime and violence.

“When people have the opportunity to give back… it allows them to grow, develop, mature and [an] an even greater contribution to their families and communities, ”says Brewer.

The Eden Project doesn’t just stand up to the material challenges of nutrition and income, says Brewer. It helps the community resist desperation.

“It’s a constant battle,” she said, “and they are winning this battle.”

Seeds that keep growing

Winning involves sweat-stained shirts and dirty hands during the growing season from early spring to late fall. For Mr. Billups, who has spent almost half of his life working in the garden, those hours are part of who he is.

Project Eden sources its seed through donations, grants and community partnerships, including one with the Capital Area Food Bank. While the selection depends on what is available, volunteers follow a loose crop rotation of roots, legumes, fruits and greens – like the lush Swiss chard which grows tall this season. Sometimes on their own, last season’s crops will grow back, like a living heirloom left in the ground.

Volunteers distribute food, as well as food bank donations, to the community, using Faith Presbyterian as a distribution site. Thousands of people in the region have benefited from their work, says Billups, and, uninvited, many of them volunteer. A man offers to cut the grass. Another woman in a nearby building stands guard, fearing an intruder might break in.

“Project Eden was really founded as an agency engine so that people could see that you can grow your own food and that you can claim your own right in your own environment,” says Mr. Billups, a recent graduate of the American University and plans to continue his work with urban gardens when he begins working in Baltimore.

Ervin Bias, a deacon at Mrs. Gaines’ church, is one of the volunteers. He’s been involved in the project almost from the start and has worked so many hours that Mr. Billups calls him the “master gardener”.

Although he has two jobs, Mr. Bias visits the garden at least once a week. Getting his hands dirty reminds him of childhood moments in the garden with his father. On calm mornings, tending to the crops alone – especially his scented mint – reminds him of God.

Garden volunteers are regularly called “brother” and “sister”. On a Saturday in mid-April, the day of weeding, watering and other scattered work began with an a cappella performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem. Everyone stood in a circle and sang together.

But the sense of community maintained in the greenhouse is fragile. The building whose courtyard houses the Eden Project greenhouse was recently put up for sale, and they couldn’t compete with a huge offer from the developers.

While they hope to stay, they will move out if they need to, Ms. Gaines says.

But even though their work there is done, it’s not over, says Bias. A seed planted in the garden is a seed planted in the gardener. In him, and in Mr. German, Mrs. Gaines, Mr. Billups and thousands of others who have walked through the greenhouse, eaten the food and tasted the fruit of their land, this seed is still growing.

“I don’t know when this will ever end,” says Bias. “It’s something that I can always take with me, to share with someone else.”

This article originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor and is published in partnership with Journalism Solutions Exchange

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