Tag Archives: community garden

Coming Back to the Garden of Tomorrow

I was excited and anxious to come back to the Garden of Tomorrow last weekend.  My experience there last November with Jay’s dad was one of the most transformational volunteer experiences I’ve had so far.  When I left the garden last Thanksgiving weekend I wanted to tell everyone about my experience there.  But one of the challenges of such a transformation is that it is incredibly difficult to explain the significance of what you saw and felt to anyone who has not been through the same experience.
Community Garden Sign

Having tried and failed once, I will try again now to describe what the garden is and why it is powerful.

The Garden of Tomorrow is a fitting name for this community garden, because the crew there is making the tomorrow they dream of exist today in one small city block in south central Phoenix.  Darren Chapman, the man behind the garden, has a vision for a neighborhood in which all residents have healthy food to eat that is grown locally.  He has a vision of a community that values all of its members, young and old, of all backgrounds.  These members have the opportunity for meaningful work, both paid and unpaid.  People who live in this community gather to share stories, discuss the challenges they face, and problem solve together.  When members of the community make mistakes, break the law, or take a bad path, they are not banned for life from civic involvement.  Instead, when they are ready to make healthy choices, they can find a home and a support system.

line for lunch at community garden

Lunch line for Community Garden

On this bit of fenced dry land, they have created a community that takes the best of what is in South Central Phoenix (corner of 18th Pl and Broadway), and brought it together to create a safe vibrant space of belonging.  On paper it is a garden.  It is only one city block long.  The land is actually owned by the HUD housing development next door, Darren’s group has an agreement to tend the land and take care of it since it was not being used.  The produce from the garden goes to the local community and surplus is sold to raise funds for projects.  Every Saturday they host a garden work party open to anyone who has an inclination to see what it’s all about.  Speaking about the garden in this way does not describe what it is really about.

Live music

We had a DJ to accompany the garden work and then a live band during lunch

The garden is as much about people as it is about plants.  It serves as a place to envision a new way of being with each other in which we can peacefully coexist and even pool our resources to solve problems.  Last time I visited the garden, as joyful music played, kids danced, and families got their hands dirty digging up yams, we were also faced with the reality of the city outside.  Two families were in the garden that day, mourning the recent violent deaths of their young sons.  The Phoenix community was divided on all of it’s fracture lines, with vigils being planned and extra reinforcements being brought in to protect the mourners against further violence.  As the Marco family worked in the garden alongside former gang members not so dissimilar from the two who shot their boy Zachary, we could see both realities.  Within this city block we could work together as equals and empathize with one another.  Dan Marco (whose son was killed weeks before) was in an environment in which he could have an open discourse about all of the factors contributing to violence in the city.  He spoke to us about how he, as a criminal defense attorney had defended gang members, but had never before asked about their families, their neighborhoods, or the situation that led them down that path.  Instead he had bought a home in a gated community where he could be closed off from other parts of the city.

Garden of Tomorrow in Phoenix

Dan Marco (right) talking with regulars at the Garden of Tomorrow last November

I once heard that in order to be truly thoughtful, you have to be able to hold two opposing viewpoints in your head at the same time and appreciate the reality of both of them. In the garden we experience two opposing versions of reality, and the tension between them is what draws this community towards reconciliation.   I was relieved to find that the garden is still creating this opportunity every Saturday.  My experience with Jay’s mom Cindi was less intense, but all of the same ingredients were present.  I can’t wait to go back and to finally bring Jay along to participate.

Sharon and Cindi talking to Natividad

Sharon and Jay's mom Cindi talking to Navidad (a former gang member who now runs a program called Gangs to Jobs)

Volunteering in the Community Garden – AKA, Ruining Our Shoes

These 6 hours of volunteering were sponsored by Tiffany Kudravetz and Terri Defazio.  Thank you for the support!

One of the things I didn’t think about until my shoes were covered in about 5 pounds of black prairie soil is that on this trip we only have the stuff in the car.  I have only one pair of walking shoes and on Saturday they got filthy.  It was a memorable way to learn that Plano Texas is part of a unique strip of soil that is incredibly rich and comes in either of two forms: sticky or solid.

Shoes covered in Black Prairie Soil

Jay's Shoes Covered in Black Prairie Soil

On Saturday morning we woke up early to backtrack from McKinney to Plano Texas.  My friend Robin had given us the heads up on a community garden work day there.  Arriving a few minutes late (we’ve been getting lost frequently on this trip), the coordinator, Erin, had already started her intro.  We joined a small crowd made up of teenagers from Future Farmers of America and women who are garden regulars.  This Saturday turned out to be their once a month volunteer work day, so we jumped right in with picking up litter and digging rocks out of the soil.

Plano Community Garden

The garden area we were working in

When I think gardening, I think planting, weeding, harvesting, watering….  We did not do any of those things.  As you can see above, the garden isn’t much of a garden yet.  It turns out that there used to be an extensive garden here, but it had to be transplanted in order to make way for a new LEED Platinum Certified Environmental Education Center, built on the grounds.  The building has just been completed, so now it’s time to get the garden back in.  That means a lot of grunt work, tearing out any plants that aren’t part of the plan and picking all the rocks and junk out of the soil.

Jay dragging tree branches to the street

Jay dragging tree branches to the street

It felt good to get a little dirty and join in the community effort.  Community gardens are particularly noteworthy for being a place of common ground where diverse peoples can gather and work together to create a space that is beautiful, productive, and safe.  When we are in Phoenix at the end of February, we plan to revisit the Garden of Tomorrow, that I volunteered at in November.

Sharon carrying tree trimmings to the street

Sharon carrying tree trimmings to the street

Community Building – An Urgent Need

I teared up this morning as I walked around the Tigermountain Foundation‘s Garden of Tomorrow in south Phoenix and realized that what was happening here: real community building across different ethnicities, different generations, and different socio-economic classes, was both rare and urgently needed.  Everyone had come to the garden that morning with a different background and a different reason for making this place special.  The warmth and positive energy that we created filled the city block, making a hospitable space for both plants and people to prosper.

Community Garden Sign

A place for health

At 8:30 am on a beautiful, if a bit chilly Saturday morning, about 75 volunteers gathered around to hear Darren Chapman tell us the stories of the Garden of Tomorrow where we would be serving this morning.  Chapman is a dynamic storyteller, with a great sense of humor, charismatic presence, and ability to connect at a personal level with each member of his audience.

Wheelbarrow full of yams

Yams that I helped harvest

He started with stories of health, how working in the garden and increasing awareness about vegetables and healthy eating had helped several of the volunteers present lose weight and feel great.  One man had weighed over 400 pounds and was using wheelchair because his legs could not support his weight.  We watched as he walked under his own power across the garden at a much more reasonable 220 pounds.

Seniors getting food at the Community Garden

Residents from next door joining us for lunch

The garden is located next to a federal housing complex for senior citizens.  The seniors take care of the garden during the week and then join the volunteers on Saturday to help out and enjoy a large nutritious lunch.  Chapman emphasized the importance of being multi-generational.

A place for healing

For several of the volunteers present that morning, this project carried special meaning.  Dan Marco, pictured right, lost his son, Zachary (21), a month ago when he was gunned down in Phoenix near ASU where he was a student.  There are two African-American young men (17 & 20) currently suspected in his death.  Dan Marco and his two daughters (pictured below) are came out to south Phoenix seeking answers about how this violence is generated, and how he can help prevent any more tragedies in this community. 

When Dan Marco spoke to the group at lunch, he said that speaking to participants in the garden this morning gave him a new perspective.  He said that as a criminal defense lawyer, he has defended gang members, young men in similar circumstances to the ones who are probably responsible for his son’s death.  He admitted that he didn’t give much thought to where they came from or where they were going to or the larger system that created the circumstances.  Marco added that he was not going to go behind the walls of his gated community anymore, he wants to understand and he wants to live out his son’s legacy by advocating for peace and for communities in which youth are supported in making good choices.  Marco is forming a foundation in his son’s name: The Zachary Marco Foundation.

Staffer of Tigermountain Foundation who spent 30 years in jail and is now a supervisor

I also enjoyed the new experience of having a man who had spent much of his life behind bars, give me instructions on how to handle the compost.  He seemed kind, patient, and dedicated to his work.  I wondered how he could have come through the criminal justice system and ended up here, giving back and contributing to his community.

A place for hospitality

Live music

We had a DJ to accompany the garden work and then a live band during lunch

Volunteering is always more fun with good music!  We were treated to a great DJ with an excellent sound system, and then got a real treat around lunch time with some live music which we found out later was actually paid for by the Tigermountain Foundation.

One of the highlights after digging in the hard soil for a couple of hours was being treated to an absolute feast: BBQ chicken, collared greens, soup, corn bread, and more!  The act of volunteering together and eating together is a wonderful recipe for community building.

Volunteer Project Rating: Must go!

Volunteer at the Tigermountain Foundation Garden for Tomorrow every Saturday, 8:30 am – noon, 1823 E Broadway Rd
Phoenix, AZ 85040

Project Contact: Darren Chapman, dchapman836 (at) msn.com