Our local Unity Coalition in Kernville Pennsylvania, which was formed in the 1990’s successfully promoted peace during a time of crisis. Our group maintained its energy and sought to proactively create a platform for ongoing peaceful efforts. Our goal was a community garden in the underserved area of the city. Partnering with a Mennonite church whose pastor shared our vision, we looked at several empty city lots and decided on a sloping south facing vacant lot that had been abandoned for years. The city government gladly offered us the use of the neglected space for the positive and sustaining effort we were proposing. The lot measured 30 x 50’. We purchased enough beams for 8 raised beds, all of which were 4 x 8’ and a load of topsoil.
On MLK Day in 2001, our group unloaded the pine beams and cut them into appropriate lengths and filled them with topsoil. It was a sunny day in the 50’s… a bonus day for January… Our goal was bigger than growing vegetables… we wanted to grow community unity and pride.
We determined that the garden beds should be organic in nature, no pesticides…. And we’d offer free beds to local neighbors who would care for their own space. The pastor’s wife of the Mennonite church took on the responsibility of coordinating the ownership of the beds. We had several months to coordinate the project and to draw community support via word of mouth. (This was years before Facebook).
On the following Earth Day, our coalition decided to do a litter pick up in the same neighborhood. The unplanted community garden became a temporary home for a large tent and bar-b-q grills, as well as a city dump truck. We offered free hotdogs to any kid who helped pick up trash on Earth Day which fell on a Saturday. It turned out to be a big success with 84 bags of garbage gathered.
When Spring arrived, we had five neighborhood gardeners and three of our own unity members who claimed beds. Our next-door neighbor offered us his garden hose and water availability if needed. We insisted that he receive free veggies for the summer, and an important linkage to the neighborhood was made. We cut the grass between the beds and mulched the pathways. Our water benefactor, a retired steelworker, kept his eye on the place. Some Saturday afternoons were filled with racially mixed community members sharing smiles, tools and gardening advice. But usually, people showed up at odd times as their schedules permitted. Cherry tomatoes were a big hit, with lots of beans, broccoli, lettuce and onions.
We gathered donations from various community groups (garden clubs, hospital auxiliary board, and the NAACP), we placed a sign, and got a picture in the newspaper. The community garden was growing! The Women’s Help Center just down the street, gladly accepted excess veggies.
During the next five years, a variety of plants arrived from neighborhood folks to landscape the garden along the sidewalks on two of the four sides of the city lot. But the unity coalition group itself went through changes and, rather than let the garden go on without a rudder, we transferred the community garden to a local program for disadvantaged youth, who then allowed special needs’ kids a place to get their hands dirty. Three other community gardens sprouted in other parts of the city, totally unrelated to our group.
Last Sunday, MLK Sunday… as I was watching another Mennonite church service online, the current coordinator of the Unity Coalition (which itself has been revived during recent years) was speaking about MLK and I thought to myself… Wow… today is really the actual 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Kernville Community Garden. Out of curiosity, I took a 30-minute drive to that same location and although it’s January… the signs of life still exist on that once neglected city lot. The pampas grass that I planted 20 years ago, was gracefully swaying in the wind and 12 garden beds were safely “put to bed” with clean mulch. No litter could be seen, and the compost pile sat in the back corner, waiting to be refilled in 2021.
This article is shared by Dennis Williamson, MEd, is the founder/director of Family Counseling and Training Associates Inc. He has maintained his private practice specializing in addiction recovery for 40 years and has been involved in a host of efforts to promote peace and justice throughout Pennsylvania.