Planting the Seeds of Service Helps Community

| April 16, 2015

garden photoBY KATHERINE LONG

Five-year-old Caleigh Heslin, a student in Theresa Armstrong’s kindergarten class at St. James School in Johnson City, New York, already knows why Christian service is important.

“It’s helpful and respectful,” she said matter-of-factly.

Service is an integral part of education in all of the Catholic schools in the Syracuse Diocese and St. James is no different. From participating in monthly dress-down day fundraisers for charities to raking leaves for homebound neighbors or collecting home goods for Samaritan House, the students at St. James are no strangers to lending a helping hand.

Since last spring, St. James students have been getting their helping hands dirty through a new kind of service project: The John Donnelly Memorial Garden. Located right in the school’s backyard, the garden provides fresh produce for St. James Church’s food pantry, part of the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) network in Broome County.

“Food pantries are always so low on fresh pro­duce—it’s really hard to come by for most people,” said Lynette Errante, youth minister at the parish.

So in 2012 when Errante learned about Catholic Campaign for Human Development grants being offered through the diocese’s Catholic Charities office, she applied for funding to start a community garden. With that initial grant, she and others from the St. James community established a 20-by-20 foot garden at Otsiningo Park and harvested a “pretty good crop” for the pantry. The success of that program encouraged some bigger thinking.

A house on Laurel Street, directly behind the school, went up for sale, and the owners—St. James parishioners—asked the pastor, Fr. John Donovan, if the church would be interested in buying it. With an eye to expanding the parish’s borders and planting a community garden in the lot, Fr. Donovan ultimately said yes.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years,” he said. “As far back as when I was in seminary, I actually wrote a paper about using empty lots in inner-city neighborhoods [as gardens], getting people involved and having fresh produce for the local pantry.”

The house was purchased and the plot cleared. Errante was awarded a 2013 CCHD grant and, with the help of parish staff and numerous community volunteers, a 104-by-40 foot garden of 14 beds was designed and planted last spring and tended throughout the summer. St. James students were
able to participate in special ways.

Photo of kids holding garden signs“In May, I had the kindergarteners plant pumpkins,” Errante said. “The third graders made all the signs [identifying what was planted]. I was able to go into the classrooms and teach the kids about the vegetables and why it’s important to give to the food pantry.”

In its first harvest—despite the best efforts of some hungry woodchucks—the garden produced tomatoes, lettuce, a variety of beans and peas, potatoes, yellow squash, peppers, watermelon, spaghetti squash, onions, carrots, zucchini, cabbage, pumpkins and blueberries.

For two and a half years, Hope Matthews has overseen the pantry at St. James Parish. In that time, she’s seen the number of visitors double. Today, the pantry serves about 140 to 150 families per month. Having fresh produce available for visitors has been a wonderful addition. “Everything goes fast!” she said.

Service is a core part of the St. James curriculum, and the garden has been an excellent example. “Service teaches kids to give back to the community,” said Principal Matthew Martinkovic. “Being in Upstate New York, all the communities are very small. [Given] how much need is in these local communities, this shows the kids how they can effect and make change themselves.”

In October, a group of kindergarteners visited the garden to harvest beans, peppers and potatoes. Caleigh was there to help again, along with classmates JJ Elliott and Emily St. John. All said they liked helping out in the garden because it was a way to help people who don’t have food. Caleigh added, “It’s good to do.”

Katherine Long is the editor of The Catholic Sun.

 

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