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The Power of a Garden
Rotary members in Harvard,
Illinois, USA, have teamed up with community groups to help alleviate hunger
and bring the community together.
On a sunny morning in July,
two dozen preschool children from Brown Bear Daycare inspect a bed of milkweed
plants for monarch butterfly eggs, holding magnifying glasses to the underside
of leaves in search of the tiny, off-white objects.
Preschool children from Brown
Bear Daycare plant a young tomato plant. The class visits the garden every
Monday morning spring to fall.
Curiosity stoked, the
five-year-olds and their teachers move to the shade of a large tree to listen
to a master gardener explain the role these butterflies play in gardens. The
preschool class visits the community garden in Harvard, Illinois, USA, every
Monday from spring to fall to learn about garden-related topics and even help
“They get to taste the
vegetables, some that they have never even seen. They get to experience what it
is like to plant a garden from the planting to the picking to the eating,” says
Sheila Henson, executive director of the day care center and a member of the
Rotary Club of Harvard. “At the end of the summer, we have a parent night where
the parents come and get to see the different things their children have been
With the goals of alleviating
hunger and educating the community, master gardeners from University of
Illinois Extension planted the garden in 2001 on a half-acre parcel donated by
the city and adjacent to the public library. Over the years, the master
gardeners have enlisted the support of many businesses, organizations, and
clubs, including the Rotary Club of Harvard, making the project a community-wide
As many as 250 needy families
benefit from the 10,000 pounds of vegetables that are grown and donated every
year to the local food pantry. The fresh produce serves as a safety net for
Roughly a quarter of the
community’s 9,200 residents live below the federal poverty line, a result of
the limited employment opportunities in small farm towns across Illinois. The
already fragile economy was further affected by the closing of a Motorola
plant here in 2003 after only seven years of operation.
“In this community, the only
way we can get by is by helping each other,” says Dave Decker, site director
for the Harvard Community Food Pantry. “Everybody needs a little help now and
The Rotary Club of Harvard
took on the project seven years ago, looking for a way to address hunger and
help the community. With only seven members, the club has had an impact far
beyond its size, amplifying its efforts by working with the master gardeners
and other groups.
“Harvard is definitely a
better place because of the members of this club, and that is what keeps us
going,” says Mike Morris, the club’s president. “It’s the expertise of the
master gardeners, individuals in the community, farmers who help, and the
education provided through the day care that makes this an amazing team
The Rotary club has provided
$400 to buy seeds and starter plants from a local nursery every year since
2011. It also purchased plastic drip irrigation tubing and fertilizer valves
after a drought threatened the garden in 2012. This year, it provided a letter
of support needed by the master gardeners to secure a $5,000 grant from
the McHenry County Community Foundation for an
organic compost mix that will add nutrients back to the soil and help keep
weeds at bay.
Morris has made the garden
his special focus and enlisted every member of the club to help with planting,
weeding, and harvesting. Henson also recruited day care employees to
The garden needs everyone for
planting, says Dale Nelmes, one of the master gardeners who volunteer every
“Many of us master gardeners
are up there in years and can’t get down on our hands and knees like we used
to,” he says. “I was so impressed with Rotary and Sheila, who brought all these
young volunteers in. It was incredible how much we accomplished.”
The Harvard Rotarians also
used a Rotary grant to buy a new freezer, which allows the food pantry to store
Last winter, Morris secured
another Rotary grant for $2,000, which, when combined with $5,000 from
club funds, funded seven weeks of food deliveries from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. A mobile unit from the food bank set up at Brown Bear Daycare once a month from
October to April, each time distributing 9,000 pounds of meat, vegetables,
boxed goods, breads, and fruits.
Morris says growing up on a
farm in northwestern Illinois played a big part in his interest in fighting
“I know we can produce more
than enough food to feed everybody in the country,” he says. “It’s just a
matter of the logistics of getting it from the farm to their table.”
On a July morning, about 20
people – Rotarians, master gardeners, and community volunteers – are scattered
among the 14 rows, each 125 feet long, pulling weeds and picking vegetables.
The garden is behind schedule this year because of heavy rains, and today’s
harvest is smaller than normal. At the food pantry, Nelmes weighs each crate: 9
pounds of broccoli, 6 pounds of kohlrabi, 8 pounds of peppers, and 22 pounds of
zucchini. Later in the season, many more hands will be needed to harvest.
Reina Montes began
volunteering at the garden after a back injury forced her to stop working
temporarily and she had to go to the pantry to supplement her groceries. When
she learned about the garden, she persuaded her daughter, Elizabeth Sanchez, to
join her on Mondays to help plant, pick, and weed.
Montes moved to Harvard from
Mexico City more than 20 years ago and fell in love with the smaller town. Her
daughter now has two college-age daughters of her own, whom she hopes to teach
the value of community service.
“Thanks to the garden, we can
feed people who can’t afford to buy fresh food at the supermarket,” says
Sanchez. “I believe it is everybody’s responsibility to help the community. If
our children see that there is unity, love, and support, they are going to do
the same thing. We are leaving them a legacy.”
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