JOLIET – Word got around Joliet’s South Side pretty quickly last week after the Warren Sharpe Community Center’s Kay Bolden received a letter from the White House inviting the center to Washington, D.C., for a tour of first lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden.
But as Thursday’s formal announcement arrived, the excitement remained in full force as children eagerly harvested kale, jalapenos and other vegetables from the community garden they grew during the summer.
None of the children have traveled to the nation’s capital before, and many have never stepped foot outside the Joliet area or the state, said Bolden, the center’s executive director.
“This will be life-changing for them,” she said.
Eight-year-old Warren Cooper is one of 12 children slated to go to Washington, D.C., with Bolden and two other chaperones.
“This is really cool. I want to take lots of pictures,” Warren said, wide-eyed after realizing he was selected. “I want to take pictures so I can show my mom and my family what the White House looks like.”
Bolden submitted the application last year for a Kitchen Garden tour, explaining the center’s new urban community garden and how the children are growing vegetables, learning about nutrition and participating in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.
When she didn’t hear anything back, she reached out to U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.
Foster, who visited the center Thursday, said he sent a letter to the White House in May strongly urging the center’s selection for the tour.
“These children deserve it after all their hard work [with the garden],” Foster said. “I heard about their request and said I would be happy to write a letter in support.”
Bolden and the children plan to leave Aug. 14, and spend the weekend touring significant monuments, Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Institution before touring the garden Aug. 17, she said.
Bolden said the kids plan to give the first lady a Warren Sharpe T-shirt, a gardening apron with the urban farm’s logo and a cookbook made by the children.
The center’s garden broke ground in 2014 on city-donated land. But the project would not have been possible without the help of many community organizations and nonprofits, Bolden said.
The garden was largely inspired by Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, for which she started her own community garden in 2009 to help spark a conversation about nutrition and healthy living to fight the nation’s obesity epidemic.
This summer, the Warren Sharpe children have incorporated at least one healthy item from the garden into lunches every day, said Sam Sandoval, a student studying nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University who is working as a summer intern at the center.
“The coolest thing is that I have kids saying they want a salad. They want to go out to the garden and harvest,” Sandoval said. “This D.C. trip is such an amazing opportunity for them. It’ll be such an eye-opener for them. Maybe they’ll come home and tell their peers what they saw, and tell their neighbors, their friends.”
The garden is a great resource in showing children how to incorporate healthy foods into their diets, she said. So far, they’ve experimented in making kale chips, stuffed peppers with rice and different types of salads.
Bolden said the trip wouldn’t be possible without community organizations such as Silver Cross Hospital, which is the primary sponsor for the trip, while more funding and resources are being provided by Commonwealth Edison and Sacred Heart Church in Joliet. D’Arcy Motors is donating a 15-passenger van, she said.
“This is one thing they’ll never forget,” said Margie Woods, president of the Silver Cross Healthy Community Commission.
Silver Cross Hospital plans to give those children who can’t attend the trip free Joliet Slammers baseball tickets.
ABOUT THE CENTER
A longstanding community resource, the Warren-Sharpe Community Center is on the city’s South Side. Its mission is to provide opportunities to children and high-risk teens. Through the creation of a children’s community garden, the center hopes to transform a struggling neighborhood by providing healthy food for its summer camp program and its food pantry. About 40 children and teens attend the center’s after-school program.