JOLIET – Christopher Gibson, 11, looked Monday morning across the “Victory Garden” at the Warren-Sharpe Community Center with drops of sweat dotting his face.
“This is a great experience,” Gibson said. “We come out here pretty much every day.”
Gibson and a group of other children who attend Warren-Sharpe tend the garden, and it appears they will for years to come.
The garden will be taken to the next level with a $10,000 grant from ComEd’s Green Region grant program, for which it partners with Openlands, a metropolitan conservation organization.
Kay Bolden, the center’s executive director, said the funding will help build infrastructure for the garden, now in its third year. The grant will pay for fencing for the garden’s outer edge, a hand-washing station and a disability accessible area that will help include all members of the community.
“We have a lot of people in this neighborhood who use walkers or wheelchairs,” Bolden said.
The center also is hoping for direct use of city of Joliet water. Currently, the Joliet Fire Department fills large water tanks on a regular basis. The children then fill jugs and carry them to the garden plots to water the plants.
The funds will help buy materials for a small indoor hydroponic growing area for lettuce and microgreens that potentially can be used nine months out of the year. The kids already have authored a cookbook.
The grant was applied for by Kathy Pecora, coordinator of the We WILL Grow School and Community Garden Program. Some of the produce will be sold at downtown Joliet farmers markets to raise funds for the community center.
The produce helps feed people in the neighborhood, which is a federally designated “food desert” – a low-income urban neighborhood where most residents do not have convenient and easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
Between 600 and 800 families are served by the center’s food pantry on a monthly basis, in addition to 200 to 300 hot meals served each week during after-school and summer programs.
The model of the garden is a pilot for similar areas, Pecora said. She mentioned the Fairmont neighborhood as another area that could be slated for a similar project.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. stopped by Monday with County Board members Denise Winfrey, D-Joliet, and Herb Brookes Jr., D-Joliet, to check out the gardens. Walsh, who continues to farm family property in Elwood, spotted some weeds and showed a few children how to pull them out.
He said the children will reap the benefits of the garden by putting nutritious food on the dinner table with their own hands, adding that the $10,000 grant will go a long way with such a program. He said the kids will remember the garden and the lessons learned from it.