Quality of Life: A Community Garden Yields Food for the Soul
Salvation Army Social services coordinator Rose Confer photographs a volunteer group from local business Auto Trak. The group of nearly 20 spent the morning pulling weeds, spreading mulch and readying the beds for planting last April.
Story and photographs by Carrie Pauling
Saturday, April 14, dawned warm and sunny—a welcome change from the flurries and bitter temperatures of the prior week. Finally, a chance to turn one’s face toward the sky and feel warmth, and for Sid Furst and fellow Master Gardeners at the Red Shield Community Garden in Williamsport, to see the dormant ground beneath their feet begin to revive under caring hands.
Last spring, the community garden appeared, an unassuming 32,000 square feet of property along Park Avenue beside the YMCA and across High Street from UPMC Susquehanna.
In contrast to the bright blue April sky, the ground was sleepy and brown, dead milkweed plants tangled in haphazard patches. A half-dozen people with rakes and shovels puttered around, the doors to the small shed on the property flung open to the spring air, whistling of work to be done.
Project of the heart
This garden is a mission project of the Salvation Army to empower the Williamsport community with a place to plant, grow and harvest produce; to educate families about the value of gardening; and to share the abundance of harvest with those who are hungry. It’s a project of the heart for Furst, who dreamed up the idea with former Salvation Army social service coordinator Amy McGovern. Most of all, this plot of land that began to catch people’s eyes by early summer, is a small sun, drawing the community and individuals into its orbit by the sheer promise of good things.
By mid-June, tomatoes were climbing their towers; cabbages, kale and collard greens were bursting green and crispy from the ground. Herbs, onions, peppers, zucchini and broccoli flourished. The milkweed revived and drew pollinating butterflies. Neighbors wandered to the picnic tables to chat. Cars slowed down for a glimpse of the urban farm taking shape.
Red Shield history
Four years ago, Furst pondered a question: what brings neighborhoods together? A lifetime resident of Williamsport, Master Gardener through the Penn State Extension Program and Susquehanna Greenway Partnership board member, Furst is a keen, determined man in his mid-70s, semi-retired from a career in finance and marketing. Toying with the idea of a community garden, he gathered a list of resources, as one might make a grocery list, and got to work. Before long, he had land and water donated by UPMC Susquehanna, 10 raised garden beds and picnic tables built by members of the Penn College construction club and a concrete slab poured by Wolyniec Construction for a shed built by Williamsport High School students. The Central PA Food Bank signed on as a major sponsor, and for a fee of $20 for a full box and $10 for half, the raised beds are rented out to individuals and local organizations including STEP, Americorps, Firetree Place, Antioch, HOPE Enterprises and UPMC. And the vision became real: a neighborhood united in growing food for the community.
Feeding stomachs, brains and souls
While growing food is half the mission, an important shared goal is to educate and feed the community. “Fourteen percent of people in Lycoming County are food insecure,” said Furst, who sits on the Central PA Food Bank advisory board. Food insecurity is considered a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle, and it’s an issue the Central PA Food Bank addresses every day. A partnership with the Community Garden to distribute food through the Food Bank’s Fresh Express program shares the abundance with people who need it.
One of the 51 Fresh Express distribution locations in the Central PA Food Bank’s region is Firetree Place, a child-care community center in Williamsport. Through the site, 12 pallets of food is distributed each week to an estimated 150 people. The entity partners directly with the garden to lease a raised bed and also participates with the Master Gardeners in programs that teach kids about where food comes from, how to plant and harvest and even how to prepare fresh foods.
“This is a great program,” said Pam Hicks, programs manager for the Central PA Food Bank. “Not only do community members get to pick the produce that is grown in their backyard, but they are able to take part in the educational process of growing a garden that includes healthy, nutritious foods.”
Months after that warm April “opening” day, on a lazy afternoon last June, Furst and Rickie Lee, a neighborhood volunteer who has donated countless hours rototilling, planting and spreading fresh soil, mowing and harvesting, rest on a bench and talk about faith, and about growing things with love, patience and respect. The garden runs like a machine, producing on schedule, but it’s also a fruitful ground for discussion and giving thanks, and friendships have grown like the plants. That was the idea all along—to develop a place that nourishes bodies and souls.
As the harvest neared its end, the garden members hosted a neighborhood picnic, inviting friends and neighbors to eat and commune together. They discussed putting the beds to rest for the winter, and the milkweed bid farewell to the butterflies until the next sunny April Saturday when it all begins again.
Visit Williamsport Red Shield Community Garden Facebook for more information and gardening tips.
Find out more about Penn State Extension Master Gardener programs at https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener
Carrie Pauling, a freelance writer in the Williamsport area, writes to find connections between people and nature, and to discover the good, the unique and the curious in all of us.