The 18 raised vegetable beds in the courtyard of the downtown Transitions center for homeless recovery are testament to the optimism of gardeners at Forest Lake Presbyterian Church. Soon, the plots will serve as laboratories of self-reliance for Transitions clients working their way out of homelessness.
In coming weeks, members of the Richland County Master Gardeners Association will begin a series of classes for Transitions residents using the raised beds. Transitions residents “will be involved in planting, weeding and harvesting,” said John Dawkins, Transitions’ community resource manager, who has long dreamed of using the space as a teaching garden.
“I’ve been trying to get this community garden going since the day we opened,” he said.
Forest Lake adult and youth members, aided by youth at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church on Clemson Avenue, built most of the beds last month, said Tommy Stallings, a real estate agent and Forest Lake member who spearheaded the effort. Fort Jackson non-commissioned officers participating in a leadership course completed the final two 4-by-8 beds.
Stallings said the beds could each yield about 80 pounds of nutritious food for the Transitions kitchen.
The vegetable project began out of a caring gesture. Forest Lake donates leftovers from its Wednesday night suppers to Transitions each week. Stallings’ wife, Cindy Welborn, is the church’s kitchen coordinator and would make those deliveries to the center operated by the not-for-profit Midlands Housing Alliance Inc. Her husband usually accompanied her.
“We were walking through the courtyard and we were noticing they had some raised beds for flowers,” Stallings said. “It just hit us that there is a lot of sunlight; we could plant some vegetables. I guess you could say we were called to it.”
About $2,000 was raised for the project, with donations from Forest Lake Presbyterian, Russell & Jeffcoat Real Estate Inc., Great Southern Homes and the Fowler Co.
Dawkins said another four raised beds will be constructed, including two that will be accessible to the handicapped.
Forest Lake, at 6500 N. Trenholm Road, has a reputation as an environmentally friendly congregation. It was the first Presbyterian church in South Carolina to be designated an Earth Care congregation by its denomination, the PCUSA. The church has an organic garden, where children raise vegetables for Harvest Hope Food Bank.
“I think it is something we are proud of; it’s something we work at,” said the Rev. Ellen Skidmore, Forest Lake’s senior pastor. “I think there is a core of folks, and I am one, who think that it is worth doing even if we inconvenience ourselves a little bit.”
There are obvious savings to the church budget through energy audits, she said, but the effort reaches beyond the church grounds. She said the congregation will soon examine the commercial-grade cleaners they use as well as the fertilizers and other lawn-care products. The church is a member of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, and “one of our next moves is to examine how we protect our watershed,” she said.
At Transitions, Forest Lake members plan to help in the planting, which likely will begin in late February, Stallings said. Dawkins hopes that the gardening experience will resonate with Transitions’ residents.
“It’s increasing self-reliance and increasing their ability to take care of themselves,” Dawkins said. “It sounds hokey and hippie, but nurturing the plants and nurturing the earth is such a positive correlation to nurturing yourself. It is a real beautiful thing.”
“The opening goal is to lead them through this,” he said. When they complete the Transitions program and move out, he hopes Transitions could build a raised garden for residents at their new homes “so they could produce food for themselves.”
“This is one piece of a systematic method to help people change their lives,” Dawkins said.