Meadville Tribune

Local News

June 6, 2014

Local nonprofits work together to create community garden

Armed with a $1,000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation, Maria Firklay, marketing and development coordinator of Center for Family Services, had to make a decision: How should it be spend?

She said Friday the grant was from the company’s “Hunger Relief and Nutrition” program, for which she had applied and was awarded the money. The purpose of the program is to address how best to relieve hunger.

“I could have bought 1,000 cans of tuna,” Firklay said, but she questioned what impact that would have on feeding people. Answering her own question, she said, “It would have given 1,000 people a can of tuna.”

But Firklay wanted more than to feed clients of the local nonprofit organization a can of tuna. So, using the old Chinese proverb of “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime,” she decided to use the money to plant a community garden — and then teach people how to use the produce grown so they eat for more than one day.

She pitched the idea to Bruce Harlan, director of Women’s Services of Crawford County, who quickly agreed. Women’s Services already had a community garden at its location and welcomed the idea of expanding it. CFS is on Center Street and had no ground for a garden.

“Using the ‘seed’ money, the project has ‘grown’ into quite the partnership,” Firklay said. That was evident Friday morning as 40-pound bags of garden soil and top soil lined the handicapped ramp in front of The Green House — a shelter operated by Women’s Service — to assist women in need. In addition to the soil, pots for planting, hanging plants and wood to make raised beds were ready for volunteers to construct. Firklay said she purchased some expensive top soil and some less expensive garden soil and mixed it together. That allowed her more money for other items.

Firklay said she received a great response when she contacted the Rec Patio Center of Espyville. Although it didn’t donate all the items to her, she got a “very good deal” on 15 flats of vegetables. “Fifteen flats,” she said, noting that was a huge amount, for which she is grateful and allowed her to plant even more vegetables.

It isn’t just Center for Family Services and Women’s Services involved in this project, though. Firklay enlisted the aid of others. Rebecca Fish, an Allegheny College Bonner Student from New Mexico, as well as the Master Gardeners of Crawford County have helped with advice for the planting. Fish will work with clients at the shelter to help maintain the garden and teach different uses of the vegetables raised, Harlan said.

The Master Gardeners offered advice about what to plant and where to plant them. For example, Firklay and Rebecca Guanzon, staff member of Women’s Services, learned they can plant zucchini in the flower garden. Grabbing pots of zucchini plants and seeds, the pair quickly set to work Friday morning — being careful to allow enough space for the vegetables to grow without crowding the flowers along the fence. Firklay said the Master Gardeners explained that zucchini is also aesthetically pleasing — it doesn’t detract from the flowers.

The project has expanded into more than just those organizations. Hermitage House of Edinboro, which operates a group home, volunteered to participate as well. Three young men quickly picked up the wood to construct the raised boxes for planting green beans and took them behind The Green House to put them together in order for the vegetables to be planted.

The garden is 80 feet long and runs along the side of the Women’s Services building. The boxes are in the rear. Pots and hanging planters will line the area along the handicapped ramp.

“We look for projects we can do together,” Harlan said. And Firklay agreed, saying, “We (nonprofit organizations) don’t need to compete. We can help each other out,”

All summer long those involved — both staff, clients and volunteers — will maintain the garden. Firklay and Harlan invite community members to get involved as well, suggesting anyone who wants to help pull a weed or two to stop by.

In addition to offering fresh vegetables from the garden, Firklay said plans are to teach clients of both CFS and Women’s Services how to can or freeze the excess vegetables so there will be food available in the winter, as well.

But Harlan and Firklay see the garden as something more than providing food. “Community gardens bring people together,” Harlan said. “By asking our shelter guests and local neighbors to participate in this project, we are strengthening relationships, encouraging folks to engage in physical activity, building skills, beatifying or space and healthy eating habits.”

The cooperation was evident as another Women’s Services employee showed up on Friday.

“When you work for a nonprofit, you do a little bit of everything,” said Julie Hunter, media and marketing services supervisor at Women’s Services, as she prepared to put on sunscreen and join Firklay and Guanzon in the planting of vegetables. “My first gardening,” she said with a smile.

Firklay has a challenge to others in the community who have garden. In addition to inviting people to visit the garden and pull a few weeds, she is encouraging home gardeners to “designate at least one plant and donate the produce from it to a local food pantry.” She adds it doesn’t have to be the CFS food pantry — it could be any local food pantry.

“Get your children and grandchildren involved,” Firklay said. “It’s a great way to ‘grow’ compassion and generosity.”

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