Pulling weeds and cutting down trees can be hard work, but excitement filled the air as several groups converged at a community clean-up in Washington Park, near East St. Louis, to begin transforming a vacant lot into a community garden.
The clean-up, which took place Sept. 28, was one of the first steps in building the Tiny Children’s Garden. The garden, located on a one-third acre lot, will provide educational programs for children in the community.
The garden will also provide residents of Washington Park with fresh produce as well as bring the community closer together, according to Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Successful Communities Collaborative Connie Frey-Spurlock.
“Of course, the first word in ‘community garden’ is ‘community,’” Frey-Spurlock said. “It’s great that we can grow some food to put local, fresh-grown food into the hands and the bellies of the kiddos, but it’s almost as important that we build and create a really strong community that can then be more resilient in the face of challenges that they might experience.”
The idea for the Tiny Children’s Garden was formed by Derissa Davis, a Washington Park resident and third grade teacher at James Avant Elementary School. Davis is also the owner of the lot that is being transformed into the community garden.
According to Frey-Spurlock, the mayor of Washington Park connected Davis with the Successful Communities Collaborative, and Frey-Spurlock was immediately inspired by Davis’ spirit.
“Derissa Davis is so passionate that it spills out into our community and into her own community, for sure, and just fuels us to want to do more and more,” Frey-Spurlock said.
Frey-Spurlock’s graduate Research Methods and Study Design in Sociology class is helping to develop a website, social media platforms and a digital map that will show resources in the area. Frey-Spurlock said she decided to incorporate the project into the course because she felt it would positively impact her students as well as the community the garden will be serving.
“What the research says is that it’s this kind of experience that has an impact beyond the classroom,” Frey-Spurlock said. “Textbook learning has its place, but the literature doesn’t necessarily say that that’s the best method to create lifelong learners and community-connected people, so I think it’s a combination of those two pieces.”
Frey-Spurlock’s class of 11 graduate students has been joined by three additional SIUE classes also contributing to the project: an undergraduate senior assignment course taught by Associate Professor of Sociology Sandra Weissinger, a Sociology of Grassroots Fundraising course taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology Ezra Temko and a Construction Management and Senior Assessment course taught by Associate Professor of Construction Anne Werner.
Weissinger said the decision to have her students participate in the project was easy in part due to the personal impact gardening has had on her life.
“From a personal reason and rationale, I knew the magnificent change that gardening has made in my life — working with the dirt, seeing plants grow, nurturing them, being able to feed other people with plants from my garden,” Weissinger said. “It’s been really beneficial to my self-esteem, and it’s taught me new skills.”
Students in Weissinger’s class are researching a variety of topics surrounding the community garden project, including what kinds of materials are needed and what types of workshops should be held in the space to benefit the community, such as trauma-informed workshops, according to Weissinger.
“One of the projects I’m really excited about is going to have trauma-informed workshops,” Weissinger said. “Trauma faces everybody, regardless of socioeconomics, race, gender — although, we know that there are certain populations who are affected more — and with that knowledge, the students are working across the campus to think about ‘What kinds of workshops would be beneficial to survivors?’”
Temko’s class is providing support for a different aspect of the project: fundraising. The class recently developed a customized fundraising guide for the community garden, which details how to raise money for the project. Temko said fundraising will play a large role in the garden’s development and maintenance.
“It’s unlikely that [the garden] will have a big donation from a corporation or wealthy individual just kind of fund the whole thing — they have to come together as a community to do it — so it was a good fit for a grassroots fundraising class,” Temko said.
Werner’s construction students are also assisting through providing cost estimates for building materials, developing a feasibility analysis, drafting a design for the garden, reaching out to subcontractors and providing an approximate construction schedule.
Senior construction management majors Seth Moline, of Quincy, Illinois, and Matt Korte, of Mulberry Grove, Illinois, are acting as the project managers. Moline said working on the project was a good opportunity to gain firsthand experience while also helping the community.
“I just think as construction management students it’s good to get out there and get the experience of dealing with subcontractors and kind of going through the phases — the permitting process, the zoning process — and getting the inside-out look at it and what it all entails,” Moline said.
Sociology Club also got involved in the project, with several members volunteering at the first clean-up. The club’s president LaTaysha Jackson, a junior sociology and criminal justice major from Chicago, said she was struck by the community’s support for the project.
“The people around the community, you can tell they want this because they’re coming out [and] volunteering on a Saturday to get involved,” Jackson said.
Frey-Spurlock also noted the participation of Washington Park residents in the clean-up, saying she was glad the community was coming together to support the project because the garden is really for them.
“[Having volunteers from the Washington Park community] was really exciting because I was concerned that it would be an SIUE project and not a Washington Park project,” Frey-Spurlock said. “But it’s very clear that this is a Washington Park project where SIUE is supporting it, which is how it should be.”
The next clean-up event will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9 at the Tiny Children’s Garden at 4701 Forest Blvd. in Washington Park, Illinois. To learn more about the project, visit the Tiny Children’s Garden’s Facebook page, follow them on Instagram @tinysgarden618 or visit their website.