Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE - Ten-year-old David Leyva, who shares an apartment with seven brothers and sisters in Albuquerque's Trumbull neighborhood, was jolted awake one day last April by a tractor plowing up the vacant lot outside his bedroom window.
"I came out with my brothers to ask what they were doing," Leyva said. "They said they were planting a garden, and if we wanted to get involved we could. So I've been coming down every Wednesday afternoon since then to help out because that's the day we all get together to work in the garden."
Dozens of children and adults from the neighborhood are participating in the community garden. Staff with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service started the project in April in cooperation with other local organizations, including Albuquerque Weed and Seed, Good Samaritan Ministries and the State Department of Health.
The garden, in the heart of Albuquerque's low-income, immigrant-heavy Trumbull Village and La Mesa neighborhoods, is designed to build community spirit and pride.
"Community gardens historically bring neighborhoods together, and in that sense this project has worked like a charm," said Justin Trager, coordinator for NMSU's 4-H Share/Care program at the Bernalillo County Extension office. "Residents from apartments and single-family homes around the plot are just coming out of the woodwork to step in and get involved. Many people at the apartments have seen each other but never talked, and now they're out here working together and socializing in the garden."
The garden grew out of 4-H Share/Care, an after-school program to help youth steer clear of drugs by participating in constructive activities that build self-esteem. Hundreds of kids in La Mesa and Trumbull Village have helped plant flowerbeds and grow vegetables at community centers, parks and elementary schools since the program started last year.
Given 4-H Share/Care's success, other organizations began partnering with Trager to build the community garden, allowing more children and adults to participate.
"We try to facilitate caring and understanding in communities by building relationships among residents, and gardening seemed to be a great, hands-on way to do that," said John Bulten, director of Good Samaritan Ministries. "It's nonthreatening and it's a partnership of people working together."
For the Department of Health's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program-which provides nutrition education and food vouchers for low-income women who are pregnant or raising infants and toddlers-it's an opportunity to educate clients about the benefits of vegetables and gardening.
"Community gardens are great development tools because they provide access to food and they give kids and adults an opportunity to learn about nutrition and food production," said Shawn Flanigan, a VISTA volunteer with WIC. "They also help build community pride because we're turning an old vacant lot into something useful and attractive to look at."
Owner Andy Smith, a cooperator with Good Samaritan Ministries, lends the land at no charge from his 3-acre plot at Virginia and Zuni SE.
The garden is about 100 feet by 30 feet, which the organizations divided into 24 individual plots of 4 feet by 13 feet each. Any family from the neighborhood can plant a plot by paying for water rights during the growing season, Trager said.
The organizations received a $3,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. They kicked in about $1,500 of their own funds to install a water meter, pump, drip irrigation system, fencing and shades for the plot.
So far, six family plots have been assigned, and kids from the 4-H Share/Care program are farming another six, Trager said. The organizations provide free seed and lend garden tools.
Produce from two community plots will be used in a community cookout after harvest in October, Trager said.
Fifteen to 20 children and adults show up every Wednesday afternoon for community gardening day.
"It's a great hands-on lesson for the kids because they're growing up in the city and most of them think vegetables just come from the grocery store," said Pat Holmes of Albuquerque Weed and Seed. "One of the boys wanted to plant eggs and cheese."
The kids say they're just having fun.
"I like to water the plants and watch them grow," said Eddie Peralta, 7, who helped plant beans and corn in one of the 4-H Share/Care plots. "It's really cool."
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