WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fifteen-year-old Reiona Jones said the children of Joliet’s Warren-Sharpe Community Center were considered VIPs Monday in Washington, D.C., where they toured first lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden at the White House.
“All these people were peering in through the fence,” said Reiona, who was among the children selected for the trip. “Everyone was on the outside of the fence wondering how we got in there.”
None of the center’s children had traveled to the nation’s capital before, and many had never stepped foot outside the Joliet area or the state. But the wheels were set in motion for that to change a few weeks ago when Kay Bolden, the center’s executive director, received an invitation from the White House to tour the garden.
Bolden said she and the children arrived Friday night. They took a trolley tour of D.C., visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and Six Flags theme park during the weekend before going to the garden Monday.
Bolden said the children learned a lot from touring the garden, and many of the children were able to identify several vegetables and herbs.
She said she and the children now have a long wish list for the center’s own community garden in Joliet.
“[Michelle Obama] has a beehive. I want a beehive now. And I want chickens,” said Bolden, the center’s executive director. “But we got a worm factory. Ms. Obama doesn’t have a worm factory. My kids know all about composting.”
The center’s community garden – which broke ground in 2014 – was largely inspired by Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, for which the first lady started her own community garden in 2009 to help spark a conversation about nutrition and healthy living to fight the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Eight-year-old Malachi Bew said he wants to try growing some of the exotic herbs he saw at the garden, with his favorite being lemon verbena, a lemon-scented perennial herb.
He can’t wait to show his family the photos he took of the White House and of the historic monuments he visited.
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 the Let’s Move! campaign.
When she didn’t hear anything back, Bolden said she reached out to U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. Foster sent a letter to the White House in May strongly urging the center’s selection for the tour.
The trip was largely sponsored by Silver Cross Hospital. Other funding and resources were provided by Commonwealth Edison and Sacred Heart Church in Joliet. D’Arcy Motors donated the transportation.
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.