Garden grows community spirit

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Nov. 15, 2011
Contributed
Volunteers with the GROW Windham project work on a garden at Memorial Park. Contributed photos. - Contributed Photo

Last fall, Windham Town Manager Neal Beets called a meeting of representatives from the town of Windham and the Willimantic Food Co-op to discuss opportunities for developing school and community vegetable gardens in the area. Included in the group was Sally Milius, a local resident who is currently taking some time off from teaching.

“We brainstormed potential locations and community partners, and then chose a few pilot projects for the first year,” said Milius. “We decided to focus on locations with existing gardens where we could get youth more involved.”

These locations included the Windham Middle School garden, Village Heights, and the Windham Area Interfaith Ministry community garden in Lauter Park. “This initiative came to be called ‘GROW Windham,’” said Milius.

With support from the town and the co-op, and volunteers from Eastern Connecticut State University, the group conducted after-school gardening programs at the middle school and Village Heights, and also supported the Town of Windham Summer Camp as they cultivated their own plot at the WAIM community garden. “Home Depot donated tools and plants, and then I planted the garden with the kids,” said Milius.

Alongside these projects, others emerged, inspired by a donation by Sears Hardware of three pallets of retaining-wall bricks. “Those bricks became the backbone of much building and planting over the summer,” said Milius. “We reached out to other community groups.”

The ACCESS Agency's RISE/Youthbuild program built four of the garden beds. A bed in front of the Willimantic Public Library and one at the Memorial Park playground were subsequently planted and maintained by WRCC/Windham Youth Services’ Positive Steps program. Two others were planted by a Girl Scout troop.

“Three other beds were also constructed with the bricks,” said Milius.  “One at the McSweeney Regional Senior Centers provides vegetables and herbs for nutrition/cooking classes conducted by a UConn EFNEP Nutrition Educator.” Another at Windham Hospital grows herbs for their kitchen. The Windham Hospital bed was a collaboration between the EASTCONN Summer Youth Employment Program and volunteers from UConn's EcoHouse.

“The final bed was constructed by Willimantic Food Co-op volunteers alongside their building,” said Milius. “We also expanded the WAIM community garden in Lauter Park, so that it could have more space to grow vegetables to donate to the soup kitchen and food bank.”

“Over the past year, a community collaboration has developed around creating and supporting school and community gardens in the Windham area,” added Milius. “We've built gardens, engaged many different youth groups and community organizations, secured over $4,000 worth of donations from local businesses, and grown over 300 pounds of produce that have been donated to the soup kitchen and food bank. It’s a community-builds-the-gardens, gardens-help-build-the-community tale.”

There are plans to expand the program. ECSU has donated a hoop house to Sweeney Elementary that will grow plants for the gardens in the area. The elementary students will be mentored by Windham Middle School students, who in turn will be guided by ECSU volunteers. Plans are also in the works for a larger vegetable garden for the Positive Steps program.

“These projects have been a true community effort, involving many different youth groups and community organizations and businesses,” said Milius. The town of Windham provided deliveries of compost and mulch and loaned tools and advice; local greenhouses (Ladd's, Woodward, Hockanum, Ledgecrest, Mackey's, Alice's Greenhouse, Annie Vinton Elementary School) donated plants and potting soil; local businesses (Willard's, Mansfield Supply, Hain Materials, Thompson and Sons, Builder's Concrete, Hytone Farm, True Value Hardware, Stix 'n Stones, Home Depot, WalMart) donated supplies; CT Ag in the Classroom donated seeds; the Garden Club of Windham donated tools and supplies; and the Willimantic Food Co-op donated seeds and healthy snacks for the after-school programs.

Many community organizations (WRCC, ACCESS, Willimantic Housing Authority, Covenant Soup Kitchen, WAIM, ECSU, the Willimantic Food Co-op, ClicK, GROW Windham, local farmers, the town of Windham, Windham Public Schools) are currently joining forces to write a proposal for a USDA/NIFA “Community Food Project” grant, “to bring together and integrate efforts to promote food security in the area,” said Milius. “Regardless of whether we get the grant, the group has become the base of a new Community Food Advisory Council that will continue to work together to assess need and coordinate programs.”

For more information about GROW Windham, contact Milius at shmilius@gmail.com.


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