The GardenWorks Project has installed over 200 raised bed vegetable gardens for families in DuPage County who rely on food pantries for their basic nutritional needs. I’ve participated in about 100 of them, more or less, and I’ll admit the details get a little fuzzy when I try to remember a particular garden build. But there are some I’ll never forget, and this is one of them. It was a build from our second season in the spring of 2013.
As the volunteers gathered in the street in front of the Winfield Home, I could tell something was happening. When I’d visited the home a few weeks prior to meet with the client (let’s call her Julie) and determine a good spot for the garden, there weren’t this many cars in the driveway. Were they having a party and forgot about the garden build? I quickly double-checked my email communications with Julie to ensure the date and time were correct, and sure enough, we were there at the agreed-upon time.
“Well, this is going to be awkward!” I thought as I asked the volunteers to wait at the end of the driveway while I went to the front door.
The house was a long, one-story building split into two separate apartments. Julie and her teenaged kids lived in one apartment, while her elderly parents lived in the other. Julie worked full time, but her income wasn’t enough to provide everything her kids and parents needed and she often turned to People’s Resource Center, a Wheaton food pantry, for help. Julie wanted to be able to give her family the fresh vegetables she couldn’t always afford to buy at the store, and PRC connected her to The GardenWorks Project.
As I came closer to the house, I didn’t hear music or talking - for a party, it was strangely quiet. I rang the doorbell, and after a few moments, Julie slowly opened the door. “Meet me in the back,” she whispered as she pointed toward the back of the house.
I raised one finger to the volunteers signaling that I needed a minute, and headed to the backyard. Julie was stepping out of a sliding patio door, closing it slowly and gently.
“We did agree on today, right?” I asked.
“Yes, only my father has taken a turn, and the family is here to help him pass,” Julie said. I remembered from the home visit that her father was in his 80’s and his health was declining. I’d met Julie’s mother that day too, who was also in her 80’s and needed assistance to walk.
“Oh! I’m so sorry! Should we come back a different day?” I asked, ready to give the family privacy in their time of grief.
“No, please stay! My Mom is so excited for the garden and everyone wants to help.”
We agreed to move forward with the garden build, and I went back out front to let the volunteers know what was happening. We picked up the raised garden bed frame and some tools and headed to the backyard. At the same time, Julie’s family, four adults and three children, came outside to help carry the bags of soil from the driveway where our volunteers had delivered them that morning to the backyard.
We explained to the family that Julie and I had picked a sunny location close to the back door and the hose to make it easy to maintain and harvest from the garden. We screwed together the cedar boards (cedar is a long-lasting hard wood) and pushed the corner stakes into the ground. We used a lawn trimmer to cut the grass inside the bed as low to the ground as possible and loaded it with soil and compost (we didn’t remove the sod because the soil blocks out the sun, killing the grass and providing nutrients for the garden). We talked about the seeds and seedlings Julie had previously selected and how to best place them in the garden, taking their final size into consideration before planting them.
Our garden builds usually take about an hour, and with all of the extra help, we were finished in about half the time. As we began to pack up our tools, Julie asked us to wait a minute. We offered or condolences to the rest of her family and learned that her dad was nearing the end. Julie came back outside slowly, helping her step onto the patio. Together, with Julie’s arm around her mom’s waist for support, they walked toward us. Her mother smiled at us and started speaking, but she didn’t speak English. While we didn’t understand the words, we knew she was saying, “Thank you.” She hugged each of us with a smile and gentle words of appreciation.
“She said the garden is like a bright light and adds a nice memory to this difficult day,” Julie’s brother said. The kids pointed out to their grandmother what each seedling was and she nodded and smiled.
We said our goodbyes and gathered in the front yard to wrap up, marveling that this family had allowed us to be part of what was surely a difficult time. I left that build not feeling like an intrusion, but with appreciation that this family made us feel so welcome and allowed us to do this work for them. I hoped that the vegetables they would grow there would add to what they received from the food pantry and provide them with well-rounded and healthy meals.
In this time of giving, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to The GardenWorks Project so that we can continue to provide families in need with backyard vegetable gardens, and support community gardens and backyard gardeners throughout DuPage County. Our efforts are making a difference for families who struggle with food insecurity and are increasing the availability of locally-grown produce for all. Your contribution of any size helps us purchase gardening supplies, hold group education classes for our clients and the public, start and expand community gardens and support our two part-time staff members. We have one-time and monthly donation options to fit the way you wish to give, and you’ll receive an email with tax deduction information immediately.
We also welcome you to volunteer with us in the spring as we give 70 gardens to families in DuPage County facing food insecurity.
From all of us at The GardenWorks Project, we wish you only the best this holiday season and in 2018!
Founder and Board Member