Finding inspiration and community while down in the weeds

“You can’t overstate the importance of working with your hands. When you work with your hands you also work with your heart. Working with your hands empowers you.” – Ray Figueroa, community leader

It started simply: a call for volunteers for a community service project with Clif Bar, one of our CCLC clients. Each year Knowledge Universe is invited to send an employee to one of Clif Bar’s In Good Company projects, projects centered around sustainability and building community – in this case, helping a community garden in New York City prepare for winter. Or as my coworkers on the Communications and Community Partnerships team called it, “your week with the chickens.”

And so, while my friends assembled their costumes for the upcoming Halloween party, I boarded a plane and set off to meet 22 other volunteers from around the country, all of us bound for Taqwa Farm, a community farm in the South Bronx, an area of New York City known more for its high crime and poverty rates than for its green spaces. Abu Talib, now in his eighties, began the garden 20 years ago in the simplest way possible: he started digging. He and his family cleared some rubble and started planting food in an area known as a “food desert” – a neighborhood where the fast food restaurants far outnumber the grocery stores.

Colleen Moran took a break from manning the KU crisis and media phone line to volunteer in a community farm in New York City. Here she is with Beyonce, one of the farm's newest additions.

Colleen Moran took a break from manning the KU crisis and media phone line to volunteer in a community farm in New York City. Here she is with Beyonce, one of the farm’s newest additions.

Although the garden has been part of the community for 20 years, Abu and his family needed help to make their farm – and it is a farm as most of Abu’s plots are dedicated to a weekly farmer’s market – the oasis they wanted it to be. We volunteers provided the labor and they provided the goals: clear the remaining rubble; build a chicken coop for 30 chickens; repair a greenhouse and shed; prepare the farm for winter; and transport a seemingly endless pile of compost to the garden plots.

We got to work sawing, drilling, assembling, weeding, pruning, and shoveling (see photos of our work on Facebook). We explained our work to neighbors who worried we would take away their garden, and worked side-by-side with other gardeners who talked about how important it is to them to feed their families fresh, healthy food. We watched children play on a play structure we’d just finished surrounding with a spongy blanket of wood chips created from branches pruned from fruit trees around the garden, and we listened. We listened to stories about how this small farm unites the neighborhood, how community gardens supplement a family’s food supply and relieves some of the stress of financial pressure, how gardening empowers the disenfranchised.

When we weren’t in the garden, we met community leaders doing little bits of good every day, like reminding a child who constantly hears “you can’t do this, you’re no good at that” that they are actually quite talented because not too many people can jump rope while riding a unicycle – a not-to-uncommon sight at the afternoon community center circus class. We met teens who beamed with pride as they described planting hundreds of native grasses along the banks of the Bronx River as part of a habitat restoration project, and others who discovered, to their amazement, that they could produce something like garden-fresh produce or a wooden rowboat.

Sure, I shoveled a seemingly endless amount of compost during my week in the South Bronx, but I also saw first hand how proud its residents are of their community, a place that’s home to colorful street murals, beloved gardens, passionate community activists, and kids who aspire to become chefs, artists, even social workers. (“Because I’m good with kids and I want to help people,” was the answer when I asked, “Why social work?”)

I left Portland knowing those 10 days would be dawn-to-dusk work, hard work, with people I didn’t know, in a neighborhood I’d never seen. What I didn’t know was how welcoming the people of the South Bronx would be, how strong a bond I’d form with my fellow volunteers, or how much 10 days with like-minded people would reaffirm my values about food, community, and sustainability. I left thinking this was just a volunteer project. I came home inspired.

– Colleen Moran, Knowledge Universe senior communications coordinator

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