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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Tree Grows in Grand Rapids

Air Date: Week of

Wendy Nelson of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on a community garden which has revitalized the landscape and the people of one of Michigan's inner city neighborhoods.


CURWOOD: From time to time we like to visit those community gardens where folks are using a bit of verdant therapy to revitalize the landscape and the people of inner cities. This week the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson takes us to where some green is growing out of the grid of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

(Traffic, horns)

NELSON: It's easy to miss this small garden if you drive too fast down Baxter Street in Grand Rapids. It's not a big space, only about 30 by 50 feet, and there's no fence or sign to distinguish it as being anything special. But on 2 afternoons each week it swarms with activity.

(Children clapping and chanting: "Jump in. Jump out. Turn yourself around. Jump in. Jump out. Introduce yourself. My name is Cher. (Yeah) I go to school. (Yeah) I'm a keep on going. (Whoo) Every day of my life...")

MORE: My name's Michelle More and I want to be a lawyer or a singer.

SPENCER: My name's Elizabeth Spencer and I want to be a secretary or a teacher.

NEEN: Hello, my name is Ev Neen, I want to be in Catholic College. And I want to be a teacher. And I want to be a lawyer if something work out. And I want to have a good life when I grow up.

NELSON: These young women range in age from 8 to 14. They come from poor families in the neighborhood. Most are from single parent homes. They gather here after school to tend what they've sown. From the day this vacant lot was plowed, the girls have made all the decisions about this piece of earth. They planned its layout and chose not to use pesticides on the plants they would grow here.

GIRL #1: This here is parsley. And I got chives over there.

GIRL #2: Sunflower seeds and nasturtium and cabbage.

GIRL #3: We had some plants right through here but they died. There's no telling where they at now, probably under the ground.

And there's a grasshopper.

NELSON: The Girls' Garden project is run by Jonathan and Kelly Vanderbrug. The couple says that along with gardening they try to teach the girls social skills like team work and conflict resolution. They're the kind of life lessons that end up getting played out in the garden, like when a plant is mistaken for a weed and accidentally gets pulled up.

GIRL #4: That's a plant right there.

GIRL #5: Nuh uh.

GIRL #6: I think that's a plant.

GIRL #7: Yes that is.

GIRL #6: How is it in the wrong place?

GIRL #7: Why you pull it up?

J. VANDERBRUG: That's all right. We'll move it.

GIRL #8: Right there.

J. VANDERBRUG: It is in a weird space. You know what? It's not necessarily dead yet.

GIRL #9: Plant it back.

J. VANDERBRUG: You can still plant it.

NELSON: A small grant helps pay for gardening tools, compost, water bills, and salaries for the girls. They market their organic produce to a local food coop and set up tables to sell directly to customers on the street. For their work each girl receives a stipend of $20 a week. Fifteen goes into a bank account and there's a cash bonus for those who continue to garden through the final harvest. The girls use their money to buy school clothes and supplies. Twelve-year-old Taisha says the experience of earning, saving, and spending money is another lesson growing in Girls' Garden.

TAISHA: I learned how to sell the stuff that's in the garden. I learned how to write out receipts to people. And I learned how to keep a bank account at Old Camp Bank.

NELSON: There are also lessons to be learned about the natural world.

(Grinding sounds)

NELSON: On this afternoon the girls meet in the Vanderbrugs' kitchen a few blocks away from the garden. They've brought with them handfuls of freshly harvested basil.

GIRL #1: We're trying to make pasta.


GIRL #1: [Giggles] Pesto.

(Girls' voices: "Ooh." "Smell it you all!" "Ooh can I smell it?")

NELSON: The youngest of the girls is 8-year-old Lauren. She says she wants to be a farmer or a nurse when she grows up. Lauren says Girls' Garden thrives without pesticides because of nasturtium and other special flowers the girls planted to keep bugs away. As her friends prepare the pesto, Lauren explains why organic gardening is so important to her.

LAUREN: Sometimes poisons make you sick when you put this bug spray on, but the plants do it for you, and you don't have to worry about it. If everybody had that, I bet they have a safe food.

NELSON: Cooking and gardening side by side with the girls, Kelly Vanderbrug says she's heard the way they are, to use a popular phrase, at risk. The way they talk matter-of-factly about having children at a young age, or whether or not they'll finish school. The violence they've seen from gangs and boyfriends. But she also sees their potential.

K. VANDERBRUG: They've claimed this space as kind of their safe place. They come here to play and to be together with one another. And all of them are just so vibrant and so bright and I don't know, I really, my prayer is that they all make it.

(Girls chanting: "Our name is..." "The Girls' Garden!" "Yeah." "We work." "Yeah." "Gonna keep on working." "Yeah." "Every day of our life. Every day of our life.")

NELSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

(Chanting continues: "Jump in, jump out, turn yourself around. Jump in, jump out, introduce yourself. My name is Evie. (Yeah) I go to school. (Yeah) I'm gonna keep on going. (Yeah) Every day of my life...")



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