PAWTUCKET — As he held 10-month-old son Leland in his arms, Ken Hoffa explained why he volunteered to help the New Urban Farmers organization — not to mention members of KeepSpace, the Pawtucket Foundation and the city's Housing Authority — construct and care for the “Garden of Life” at Galego Court on Monday afternoon.
“I was doing hazard waste operations for Clean Harbors Inc. of Rhode Island, and working with Groundwork Providence, an environmental company that trains everyday people to be able to do jobs such as farming,” said Hoffa, a 26-year-old city resident. “I first came out to network with people and help the New Urban Farmers (NUF) build the greenhouse, but I kept coming back as a volunteer because I loved the work.
“I'm doing this to help the kids; I mean, I have a little one of my own, and I want him to know how to grow his own food and keep the environment clean when he gets older,” he added. “This is something that works for everyone, and I feel I'm gaining experience by helping Galego Court children now. I've made friends with so many people, and it's been a wonderful experience.
“The best reactions of growing their own foods have come from the children themselves. They see their own work. They see the vegetables they planted come up, and they're so excited. They jump up and down, or they run home to tell their families. It's like watching a little kid open up his first gift on Christmas morning.”
Hoffa wasn't the only one impressed by the one-acre community garden located behind Galego Court. Attendees of the mammoth “Harvest Celebration” all gushed at the 80 garden beds — some four feet-by-four feet, others four-by-eight. They included Richard Godfrey, Executive Director of Rhode Island Housing and KeepSpace Advisory Committee member; U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse; Curt Spaulding, New England Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator; and Richard Walega, who holds the same position at the New England Regional Office (Boston) of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.
Among the others” Steve Vadnais, Pawtucket Housing Authority's Executive Director; Thomas Mann, Pawtucket Foundation's Executive Director; and Mayor James E. Doyle.
All were there to recognize and thank Bleu Grijalva, NUF's Founder and Director; his Assistant Director Emily Jodka; and dozens of volunteers and Galego Court gardeners.
Grijalva and Jodka received Congressional citations from Reed and Whitehouse, as well as a city citation from Doyle. Additionally, Godfrey accepted a “Smart Growth Award” for KeepSpace – a widely-inclusive partnership initiative launched in 2007 to change the way Rhode Island thinks about, builds and approaches “community” – from EPA and HUD officials.
In fact, Walega announced KeepSpace as one of only eight recipients nationwide to receive targeted technical assistance – $65,000 – for growth and development issues.
“This celebration blows my mind,” Grijalva grinned in front of the 120 folks who took in the event on this golden autumn day. “I never expected this kind of turnout, but the enthusiasm confirms we're moving in the right direction. Not once but twice this year, we've had this many people.”
Grijalva referred to “Pawtucket Proud Day,” hosted by the Pawtucket Foundation, held on June 8. That's when over 100 volunteers – most of them businesspeople whose employers allowed them to take part – on company time – in cleaning and bettering the city and its folks – arrived at the previously rundown playground and turned it into a community farm of sorts.
“I had been involved for over 25 years in the food industry, and – eventually – that led to me doing organic farming in Little Compton,” he said. “It was then I noticed the food we grow was catering only to one demographic, the upper echelon of those on the pay scale. I was thinking we needed to make it more cost-effective for those less fortunate, so we decided to hit the cities. We went to some of the most challenged areas statewide, Pawtucket and Central Falls, and build a garden for their use.
“Right now, we have over 80 garden beds here,” he continued. “We loaded them with soil and compost, planted the seeds and landscaped the area. We taught these people how to grow pumpkins, tomatoes, butter nut and summer squash, peppers, watermelons, flowers and herbs. The NUF members cared for the gardens with the residents, and now over 65 households here have gardens.”
NUF is a non-profit organization that set out to preserve and restore the environment by creating sustainable agriculture systems in the city. At Galego Court, they helped individuals empower their lives.
Grijalva and Doyle – among others – called it a unique partnership between the PHA, KeepSpace and the Pawtucket Foundation, providing a natural place where children and families may learn and grow.
“We're working to remove the barriers to fresh food access in Pawtucket and Central Falls and positively impact the health of our community,” noted Grijalva, who explained the residents collected – throughout the summer and early fall – over 2,000 pounds in produce.
“I'm here to salute you, for what you all have done to make this place a real community,” Reed stated. “This garden, and environment, adds to the feeling of 'home,' not just a bunch of city streets. This is recognizing we need to pull together different organizations if we're going to meet the challenges of this country, this state and this city.”
Walega congratulated KeepSpace for making sustainability a real concept for urban areas.
“This teaches kids to be aware of good, healthy eating habits,” he offered. “I know these kinds of programs KeepSpace will continue to have.”
Doyle claimed such a program is critical for two reasons.
“They're getting a chance to plant vegetables and fruits that they can consume; and, second, it gives them an opportunity to work together,” he said. “You know, five years ago, the PHA didn't know it owned this property, and that's a true story. When people in public housing have something like this, and they all work together, the city itself becomes a better place.”
Mann called the garden an impressive site.
“It's important for our future sustainability,” he mentioned, “and embracing a project like this only helps the urban cause.”
After the speeches, attendees enjoyed food samplings of borscht – a beet, potato and cabbage soup; honey tasting; cider; and others. Children ages 14 and under received a free pumpkin, and kids also partook in face painting and other games. Some bobbed and weaved to the music of the Hot Tamales, a local brass marching band.
“This is incredibly impressive, in that it's all about community,” Godfrey said while sipping on some borscht. “It's not just about four walls and a roof, but the residents who live inside them. We need to focus more on communities and helping them, not just here at Galego Court but the 100s of communities and neighborhoods statewide.
“Look at the work (First Lady) Michelle Obama has done with gardens and addressing childhood obesity, nutrition,” he added. “It all has filtered down to what we see here at Galego Court. This is a celebration of our KeepSpace initiative, and it really has brought everyone here to work together on these community projects.”
Stated NUF's Emily Jodka: “This is so great! It's exactly what I had hoped for. I guess I didn't think we were going to have an end-of-the-year event like this. It's nice to know all these dignitaries came here to support us. At first, I thought people didn't really understand how big this was going to be or what we had planned.
“But when the residents saw the amount of volunteers we brought in, and that they were all here to help them, it just snowballed. We've heard a lot of great things from the residents, such as how good the tomatoes tasted as opposed to store-bought, and how sweet they were. That was music to our ears. I know this program will continue here.”
Darlington resident Geoff Grinsell is currently unemployed, so he chose to volunteer his time to Pawtucket Proud Day and the project back on June 8.
“I remember this area when I was younger, and I think it was called Crook Manor,” he said. “The idea of helping to create a garden here and putting in a positive thing, I thought it was cool. That's why I volunteered, and I had a great day.
“This is such a positive thing for this area. I think it gives these people a source of community pride. You know, the basic concept of gardening is you prepare the ground, plant a seed and – with a little tender loving care, sun and water – you then see the results of your labor. These people know all they have to do is walk several yards, pick your vegetables and then head back home to cook them and eat them.
“It's so great for kids in this setting; they understand food doesn't come from the market, but from in the ground. It shows them the true source of foods they need to eat to remain healthy.”