Story and photos by Heather Thurman
In downtown Helena sits a plot of land a bit larger than half a city block, where dreams and vegetables are grown.
The Helena Community Garden, first created in the early 2000s, has had some ups and downs. When it was originally constructed, there was a lot of positive energy surrounding the project from the community who came together to make it a reality, but, over time, that energy fizzled out as theft became an issue and members slowly stopped showing up to tend to their crops.
Thrive, a local non-profit organization focused on the revitalization of communities, saw great opportunity in the abandoned, dilapidated garden and became heavily involved in late 2011. The garden had fallen into substantial disrepair and become a local hang out for young people, partially due to trees and overgrowth that obstructed the street lights. According to Thrive co-founder Terrance Clark, the first two years were spent cleaning up and taking the garden back. During that time, a fence was constructed around the garden to help deter theft.
Thrive then partnered with Arkansas GardenCorps, an AmeriCorps program based at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute that advocates the use of gardens in schools and communities to provide nutritional, agricultural, and environmental education with the intention of reducing childhood obesity. The program aims to develop and maintain school and community gardens with recruited volunteers to increase community access to fresh produce and teach garden-based nutrition education to youth and adults.
Through Arkansas GardenCorps, Thrive was able to bring on the Helena Community Garden’s first paid service member, John Fewkes, in 2014.
Fewkes was as passionate about restoring the Helena community as he was about growing things. He brought agricultural experience and knowledge to the team and helped turn the garden around in a short period of time, creating a sustainable plan for the future of the project. His dedication inspired the community once more to support the efforts of the Helena Community Garden.
Thrive and Fewkes focused on using the garden as an outdoor classroom to teach students the value of growing their own food and making healthy food choices, developing unique and flexible curriculums to fit the needs of all students and teachers.
Sadly, Fewkes suffered a heart attack on April 8, 2016, while mowing the grass at the garden. The Helena community felt the loss deeply, and after he passed away, the garden stalled. Thrive no longer had a service member to manage the project, so the baton was passed to the Delta Cultural Center and the Helena Health Foundation.
The Delta Cultural Center hired Arkansas GardenCorps service member Susan Alman in October 2017. Alman, who grew up in a nearby city and attended the Temple Beth El in Helena as a child, had previously volunteered at many community gardens, including as a service member at the Dunbar Community Garden Project in Little Rock. She also taught farming and gardening to students in grades Pre-K through 8th and earned a Masters degree in Horticulture. She is very excited to apply her knowledge and experiences to bring success to the Helena Community Garden.
During the winter months, Alman cleaned up the property, made a plan for the 2018 season, and applied for some grants to get ahead on meeting funding. She is involved with the local schools already, presenting introductions to community gardening to the students. She has been reaching out to local community leaders to raise awareness about the garden and bring in participation. Alman has strived for at least one volunteer day per month since October and has received good feedback from community members, including large donations of soil, seeds, and even a volunteer bringing their tractor to help get the garden started.
This year, the garden has various kinds of vegetable and herb seeds started in the greenhouse, including basil, eggplant, and several different varieties of tomatoes and peppers. Seeds were also started for a flower garden to beautify the lot. These seeds will soon be ready to transplant outdoors into the waiting rows formed with the help of volunteers.
Future plans for the Helena Community Garden include several different educational programs such as an interactive Delta agricultural plot for crops that are historically grown in the Delta area, such as soybeans, cotton, rice, and corn (with fun, kid-friendly twists) and garden-based cooking classes. To keep up with the Helena Community Garden, please visit their Facebook page, where you can find information on upcoming volunteer opportunities, updates on the garden, and more.