You might think that a garden program about community gardening would be about how, when and why you should plant particular crops. But, this program involves using gardening as a means to build bridges in our community for the well-being
of our community. When one contemplates the homeless, our veterans, and food insufficiency in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, it is life changing when those who are able become positive social change agents. My name is Dr. Robert Yoder and I have sought to be socially conscious of my neighbor far and wide serving as a short term missionary dentist in Honduras for six years, building homes on the Gulf coast post Katrina and in a variety of short term mission trips but I felt this subtle tug that I should be doing more locally. I thought perhaps as a Penn State Master Gardener, I could weave my skill set and invite others to join me in community gardening. So seven years ago, I began to recruit volunteers and found the Christian community “The Barn”, currently worshipping at Swain School, willing to rise to the challenge.
The initiative began with a simple wonderment: “Could we create a community garden that intentionally brought people together to grow food for the hungry in our community?” Even better, “Could recipients of the food grown, participate in the very garden that benefitted them?” We began with 2 plots graciously donated by Lower Macungie Township. Three additional Master Gardeners and 40 volunteers of all experience levels signed up to help and learn. Immediately, friendships developed, fun ensued, and the satisfaction of walking alongside our neighbor, revealed we were onto something bigger than ourselves. The produce from the first year was modest in pounds (around 500 lbs.), but the community that was being built, both in the garden and reaching into center city Allentown was beyond description.
Fast forward six years and we now have 7 garden plots with active material and monetary support from our major donor, Home Depot, and additional financial support from Tractor Supply, Emmaus Borough, The Muslim Assoc. of the Lehigh Valley, Wal-Mart, The Barn Community, Lower Macungie Township and the Master Gardeners of the Lehigh Valley. In addition, we now have broader community involvement including 7 worshipping communities and over 175 volunteers. Leadership is provided by 11 Master gardeners assigned to each of the gardens.
The 2016 initiative included involving our veterans who too often have lost meaning in life and we find some aiml s and homeless. Also consider, in 2012 the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a study which discovered for 10 years running, there was an average of 18-22 veteran suicides per day in the United States. Can we use the community garden to give them a way of engaging community that offers new purpose? Additionally, we were broadening efforts of interfaith cooperation by involving Muslims, Christians and Jews, all working together in the garden to show the world a better way forward. To that end, we now have the Jewish temples Beth El and Kenneseth Israel, the Christian churches “The Barn” and “Life Church” of Nazareth along with two Muslim worshipping communities at “Muslim Assoc. of the Lehigh Valley” and a young vital Muslim community in Alburtis all working together, building community and growing vegetables.
Last year we raised almost 4500 lbs. of fresh produce which now benefits two Lehigh Conference of Church’s social outreach ministries: DayBreak and the Soup Kitchen at 8th and Walnut Street. We hope with continued growth to make a greater impact.
Looking ahead , 2017 has more new initiatives including new involvement of a Sikh community to broaden our community building. Second, we are trying to incorporate the youth of each of these worshipping communities in three exciting ways. In Spring, in a round table sharing format, we plan to have a youth program including a potluck meal of foods of each community’s ethnic background, seedling starting, a time of sharing their favorite religious foods and holidays in their traditions. This in an effort to teach tolerance and appreciation of the other at a young age. In Summer, we will have a week of youth involvement in direct garden care. Adult mentors will work side by side with the youth to teach gardening skills. In Fall, in correlation with the Jewish holiday Sukkot, we will initiate a gleaning project at “The Seed Farm” with kids working side by side with folks from the center city, the very people all the garden goods go to help with the food insecurity of the Lehigh Valley.
Logistically, a typical growing season would begin with willing volunteers raising seedlings like tomatoes, peppers and broccoli starting in late February. This group of seedling growers includes folks from the center city to the suburbs. It gives the wonder of spring early to families with young children and the homeless that find shelter at DayBreak. They maintain and grow the seedlings to maturity, then help in the transplanting in one of the seven community gardens when winter finally gives up its grip in mid-May.
Weekly teams of volunteers then tend, harvest, laugh, test out a sugar pea or two and take pictures of the produce being grown. All through the process a more important thing is happening: community is being knit into a beautiful tapestry. We are working side by side to make a positive difference in our community. You know you have struck a beautiful chord when in one hand you have the day’s harvest and in the other you are hugging a new found friend who comes from a completely different life situation than you do. Imagine a Jewish woman with kids working side by side with a Muslim woman’s kids. We have indeed grown CommUnity and the forecast for this year’s growing season is one full of love and care for neighbor. We are showing the world a better way forward.