Below are the success stories of some of the gardeners who are participating in our faith-based community gardens.
The Roberts Family – A Movement in Community Gardening and Education
Marchelle Roberts stands as one of eight children Lisa Roberts, adopted from the streets of Camden. Marchelle joins her mother and grandmother’s long dedication to her community and to rebuilding Camden, NJ through gardening and education. Today, Marchelle is now a senior at Temple University but has been working with the Camden City Garden Club since she was 12 years old. She was one of many youth that her grandmother Sheila employed during the summer of 2002, building and maintaining community gardens. In 2006, Marchelle started working at the Camden Children’s Garden through the Youth Job Training and Employment Program, also operated by the Camden City Garden Club. After graduating from the Youth Program, she continued her work at the Camden children’s garden, being promoted to an Administrative Assistant and an Environmental Advocate. Marchelle realizes that she is not only gaining skills for her own future, but she is also helping to give the children of Camden, NJ a bright future: “I know that many youth in my community do not have positive role models so I try my best to be just that. Gardening is more than just planting and eating vegetables. It’s about learning how to nurse a community back to health that is beaten by the media every day. These gardens are more than just colorful flowers, they give us all hope”. The Camden City Garden Club is an organization that, at its base, uses Camden resources to benefit Camden families. Four generations of influence in one family is just one story that the garden club has to tell.
Success Story was told in the summer of 2011 by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s article: “After a rough start in life, Camden women dreams of broadcast career”.
Read Full Story about the Roberts Family – CCGC: A Family Affair - growing their community one garden at a time.
Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC)
Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) is a preschool in Camden’s Parkside area that is a participant in withCampbell’s Soup’s Obesity and Hunger Program. The school educates about 500 preschoolers and is a pilot site for a childhood obesity study taking place in the city.
The school principal, Dr. Maricarmen Macrina, enthusiastically explained that the Garden Club’s Community Gardening Program and GrowLab Program were extremely beneficial to the children and their families. The children were able to grow their own vegetables on-site and in-class and celebrate with a salad party when the vegetables ripened.
ECDC received its own vegetable garden in the school’s courtyard which will give the students hands-on experience with planting and growing vegetables outdoors. The children were able to help dig holes and plant various vegetables that included beans, lettuce, tomatoes and eggplant. The garden is a vital piece of encouragement with the curriculum and Mastrosimone says that it is “the first step in the process” of battling childhood obesity. More about the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) Garden/Education Program.
Luis & Martha Checo, and son Alex
St. Anthony's Community Garden - Checo Family Plot
The Checo family of the Cramer Hill neighborhood in Camden, NJ, has been community gardening as a family for three years. Luis and Martha Checo are helped out by their 9-year-old son, Alex (pictured lower right), as they tend a plot overflowing with all kinds of vegetables, while their godson, Kevin Ruiz, at 16 years old, cultivates his own plot nearby, growing mostly herbs. All are involved with the St. Anthony of Padua community garden at 29th Street andRiver Road inCamden, across the street from St. Anthony ofPaduaChurch and school.
The garden is built on land once occupied by a police substation, says Luis Checo, who is part-time facilities manager at St. Anthony and a manager at J&J Snack Foods Corp. inPennsauken. When the police moved to downtownCamden, the substation was boarded up and eventually scarred by graffiti and other vandalism. But young people associated with the church wanted to make the space more appealing for the children attending school across the street.
“They wrote to Camden City officials and the Camden City Garden Club, and they managed to get the trailers removed,” says Luis Checo, and the church adopted the lot in spring this year. “The Camden Children’s Garden helped us, and the community helped start the 1-acre community garden.”
There are 35 families cultivating plots in the garden, “and they are pretty big plots,” he adds. The Checos grow a lot of vegetables in their plot (pictured above left). “We had all different kinds of tomatoes – six or seven different varieties – we had corn, green peppers, red peppers, broccoli, eggplant, zucchini, lettuce, red and green cabbage, melons, cilantro, rosemary – a lot of herbs,” he says. “And we had carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. We did a lot!” Some gardeners grew different crops, such as watermelons and squash, and the gardeners swapped produce with each other. “That is what it is all about, sharing – it is a community,” says Checo. “When you share things, you share a conversation and you get to know people. It attracts other people living in the neighborhood, and they come together and feel as though they own [a stake in] the neighborhood.”
The community gardeners also gave vegetables to others, including the Francis House Ministry, which is affiliated with the church. The gift of produce inspired the director of Francis House, Sue Piliro, to join the gardeners. “She has a plot in our community garden now,” says Checo. “The parishioners share the bounty, and we come up with more ideas every day about how to share and reach out.” “We go to the Camden Children’s Garden for the meetings [of Camden City Garden Club] and we meet other gardeners and get to know people all over the City of Camden. ”
Gardening seems to run in the Checo family. Francisco Checo, Luis’ father, was a keen gardener who continued gardening until he passed away in July, at age 88. And Martha Checo also loves gardening, and is very good at it, her husband says. “My wife does most of the gardening,” Checo adds with a laugh. “I do a lot of harvesting. Eating is my specialty.”
Ground to Grill Gardeners
GROUND TO GRILL Recipes and Hands-On Activities – DO TRY THIS AT HOME…. CCGC gardeners are experts in growing nutritious food and grilling it all up to feed Camden communities and families! At food events held several times a year, the Camden Children’s Garden welcomes community gardeners / CCGC members to participate in GROUND TO GRILL EVENTS. Now that gardens are starting to take over the once-dangerous/trashed abandoned lots, Camden street corners are buzzing with shared harvests and recipes – leading to CCGC to be included in the White House Garden Cookbook and various other food/garden publications. The GROUND TO GRILL RECIPES, were compiled from several of our “local celebrity grill masters”! To download these recipes and read community gardeners’ biographies, visit http://camdenchildrensgarden.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/ground-to-grill/.
Although Paul Williams of South Camden,NJ, had grown flowers in a small garden, he didn’t know much about vegetable gardening until a friend took him to a meeting of the Camden City Garden Club, whose mission is to promote healthy lifestyles by helping gardeners inCamden grow their own food. That meeting opened up a new world for this man who retired a few years ago after 25 years of working in communications for the railroad. “That was all I needed,” Williams recalls. “That was like a gift, a dream come true.”
Across the street from his house was an abandoned lot, about half an acre in size, which looked like the ideal site for the much bigger garden he wanted. “It was a terrible looking thing,” he remembers, but it was awarded to him under the City of Camden’s “adopted lots” program. “I had to buy a tiller and clear the lot myself, and put up the fence.”
Three years later, he declares, it is beautiful: “Outside the fence is a rock garden and a flower garden, and inside is the vegetable garden.” The list of vegetables he grows seems endless – corn, collards, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, cauliflower, hot peppers, green and red bell peppers, cabbage, and more. One day there will be fruit to go with the vegetables. “I just bought an apple tree an a pear tree, and each of them will have five different kinds when it is mature,” he says. “I just planted them this summer.” He gives away most of the produce he grows to neighbors and other people in the community. He grows flowers, too – annuals and perennials. “It’s very colorful and beautiful,” he says. “And I’ve got stone all around. I went all over Camden with my grocery cart to get stone to build the rock garden. We sit out there sometimes, though there’s a lot of insects. Everything is green. It’s soothing.”
Last year, Williams reached out to teach the young people in his neighborhood about gardening. “I let the kids from the street plant some vegetables, to see how they come up. They came this year, too. We have a turtle out there in the garden. The kids play here, run around, and just sit there and watch them. It’s like a playground for them.” For Williams, the garden will never be completed. He’s working on installing a sidewalk, and no doubt there’ll be other projects. “I’m going to keep on doing this until I can’t do it anymore,” he says.
Beckett Streetin Lanning Square of Camden is building yet another community garden led by Beckett Street resident and Camden City Garden Club/Camden Children’s Garden staffer, Pedro Rodriquez. Since 1985, Pedro has been an urban organic farmer, transplanting ugly trash strewn lots with healthy fresh produce that he has cultivated to feed his neighbors for 25 years. Becket Street’s greening began in 1985 when Pedro built his first community garden with the support ofMike Devlinand the then sprouting Camden City Garden Club.
In 1993, Pedro added another garden which grew a variety of fruit trees and other organic produce. In 1999, Pedro took his fresh food mission to the next level when he joined the staff of the Camden Children’s Garden and Camden City Garden Club. Pedro loves being on the staff to help maintain the Camden Children’s Garden, as well as teaching children and youth about horticulture through the Grow Lab Program and Youth Employment and Job Training Program. Pedro also tends the Plaza de Aibonito, a Puerto Rico inspired tropical exhibit always in season at the Camden Children’s Garden (pictured above left).
Pedro especially likes to educate other urban farmers and encourage Camden families to eat healthy fresh foods. Today, Pedro is enjoying helping the Becket Street Community once again as the Garden Club is clearing yet another empty lot in the City of Camden to lay compost in preparation of planting crops weather crops such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and collards. Pedro is also coordinating a tree planting with the NJ Tree Foundation where he will organize volunteers to plant trees along Beckett street.
Pedro has lived inCamden,NJ, for his entire life and takes a leadership role in his block’s cleanups, social events and gardening projects. When it is time to harvest, Pedro collects pounds of fresh produce to distribute to his neighbors. Pedro’s mother, a Beckett Street resident, was originally from Puerto Rico, and she was Pedro’s inspiration for his love of gardening.
Tracy Tomchik Nyszczot - Promoting the Growth
Tracy is motivated with the amazing transformation witnessed in her 7 years of supporting the public relations/events/fundraising for the Camden Children’s Garden. Tracy is a native Philadelphia girl, living in and around the city for her whole life. Instead of joining the Peace Corps after college like planned, Tracy decided to help her own community and a City in need right across the River – Camden, NJ.
After being inspired by Camden’s incredible strength and hope, Tracy strives to tell the nation about the good things growing in this city – only known for its downfalls and not its triumphs. A dream of Tracy’s came true in August of 2011, when the Camden Children’s Garden was featured on the Rachael Ray/6ABC Philly Grill-Off. Through a new Philly-based community garden and this grill-off event, the Camden Children’s Garden was able to share the GROUND TO GRILL EVENTS to transcend the incredible experience and to share the fellowship of a community growing and grilling healthy foods!
Tracy said, “the Camden Children’s Garden has taught me about the health benefits, financial savings and environmental influences of eating locally grown foods. I’ve loved sharing this knowledge with events I have assisted in, like FARM AID Food Events, Jack Johnson’s World Tour, at the Philadelphia International Flower Show, at the Ground to Grill Food Events, and my nutrition and wellness events, planned through my consulting company, PPbyTT.”
As a member of the Camden City Garden Club (CCGC), Tracy pays $25/year to take home flats of seasonal starter plants, compost, mulch, fencing tools and advice from expert gardeners! Suddenly, being “a gardener didn’t seem so difficult! With the CCGC’s guidance, education and supplies, the Nyszczot Family now has 3 vegetable gardens and tons of other plant life. They are also planning a 20×20 ft “backyard farm” using homemade compost and the CCGC’s organic methods, to triple the amount of produce to share with their community for the next growing season!
“Of course I still need to supplement produce that I don’t grow at home. To satisfy my loca‐vore appetite, I pay incredible prices by shopping at the Children’s Garden Farm Stand and by supporting Pennsylvania Farmer’s Markets. My husband and I are the MacGyver’s of the fridge and garden, grilling it all up for those we love. We look forward to sharing these same lifestyle and lessons when starting a family of their own!” Tracy also teaches young mothers how to grow and make their own baby food – looking forward to do the same with her family. Ground to Grill Recipe & Activity – Tracyro Garden Turkey Burger and Camden Garden Crisps.
Lily Rivera, a novice local gardener, spends much of her time helping young people. “I love gardening,” says Lily, whose young nephew, Tony, sometimes gardens with her. “When they were talking about doing community gardens, I thought ‘Oh, great, I want to be involved’.” And involved she is. She has become a stalwart of the community garden around the corner from her church, one of a small group that looked after the plants all season long for the last three years.
“We grow a little bit of everything,” Lily says of the community garden she has regularly helped tend since it was prepared and fenced by workers from AmeriCorps and the Camden Children’s Garden. “We have different kinds of tomatoes, eggplant, tons of different kinds of peppers, cabbage, celery, collard greens, broccoli, zucchini, herbs, squash, and I put in some beet seeds.
“It smells fantastic whenever we go in there,” she adds, referring to the bountiful and aromatic herbs they grow. The gardeners have plant cabbage, kale and collard greens for a cool-weather harvest.
It’s not only the people who work in the garden that enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables the garden produces. “We take it back to the church, and give it out to the people who come,” Lily says, “so they benefit from having fresh produce.” “It was definitely a success,” Lily says of the community garden’s three years. “We garden as late as we can into cool months. And then we’ll start again next year.”