By Keysha Drexel
With the growing season in full bloom, a community garden in Fairfield is providing fresh, healthy food to those in need at the same time it is helping cultivate relationships between Fairfield and Over the Mountain residents.
Along with the tomatoes and squash and cucumbers being harvested from the Grace Village Community Garden, members of Mountain Brook Community Church and neighborhood volunteers from Fairfield said they are also reaping the benefits of bringing people together to work toward a common goal.
The Grace Village Community Garden in Fairfield was constructed by Mountain Brook Community Church in 2011 through the efforts of the Young Professionals group with help from other groups, said Marcus Busenitz, assistant pastor. Earlier this year, the community garden was relocated a couple of blocks down Farrell Avenue to property owned by Grace House Ministries, a group home for girls ages 6-16 who have been victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
The community garden was designed to provide physical and spiritual nourishment for the Fairfield community by raising nutritious food. It also serves to feed the hungry as the surplus food produced is donated to Fairfield and Birmingham communities, Busenitz said.
“I think it’s one of those things that gives us a good picture of God’s love. It allows us to experience God’s love and share that with other people and to enjoy God’s creation by working in the garden,” he said.
The community garden is divided into a sharing garden where volunteers and local residents work together to grow fruits and vegetables. The food from the sharing garden goes to Grace House or anyone who helps work there, he said.
“If you help, you harvest. That’s our motto,” Busenitz said.
In the center of the property are 30 small family gardens that anyone can reserve for six months at a time for $20. The $20 fee includes the seeds, plants and water for the plot, Busenitz said.
“We have a waiting list for those plots,” he said.
Every Saturday during the summer, volunteers from Mountain Brook Community Church, Cahaba Park Church, and others join volunteers from Repairers of the Breach Church in Fairfield and other Birmingham metro neighborhoods to tend the sharing garden.
“The garden is set up not only to feed people but to unite people,” Busenitz said. “The project has led to many great partnerships and relationships in the area. We hope it will be a place God uses to build gospel connections in the community.”
The community garden has led to partnerships between the Mountain Brook church and Grace House Ministries, the Hope Health Center and Restoration Academy, Busenitz said.
“There are a couple of key ingredients that have contributed to the success of the garden,” he said. “We have really dedicated people working out here and organizations and individuals within the community who are committed to the project.”
Last year, Hope Health Center used the community garden for nutrition and wellness classes on Saturday mornings, Busenitz said.
Hope Health Center is a faith-based nonprofit community medical center in Fairfield that aims to provide health care to the underserved.
“There are so many great stories out of our partnership with the Hope Health Center and other organizations that show how the garden is making a positive difference in people’s lives,” Busenitz said. “One lady was in bad health and said she couldn’t walk 10 feet without getting out of breath before she starting helping in the garden. Now, she’s feeling better and walking all over the place. It has been a healing experience on so many levels.”
Food from the sharing garden also goes to Restoration Academy, a Christian school in Fairfield founded in 1988 and aimed at making private Christian education affordable to those in the community.
Busenitz said there are several ways to get involved in the Grace Village Community Garden. During the summer months, work days are held on Saturdays from 9-11 a.m. At least six to 12 volunteers are needed on each day.
“It’s a great opportunity for the whole family and is good for community groups and other small groups, too,” he said.
Donations of tools or money to purchase gardening tools and supplies are always welcome, Busenitz said.
Volunteers gathered to work in the garden on a recent Saturday said they find it rewarding to get their hands dirty for a good cause.
Will Koepsel of Crestline said he found out about the community garden shortly after joining Mountain Brook Community Church about five months ago.
“I like helping people and doing things outside, so this was a natural fit,” he said.
But soon after he started working in the community garden, Koepsel said he realized that he and the other volunteers were not only providing fresh food to those in need through their service.
“It’s important for people from different communities to come together to bridge the gaps between us, and I think there’s probably no better way to do that than to plant a garden and spread the Gospel,” he said.
For Lindsey Hicks of Crestline, volunteering through the church in the community garden is also a way to help beautify the Fairfield neighborhood.
“I have ties to this community. My mom is from this area, and I think it’s important to keep it nice,” she said.
Hicks said she hopes community gardens sprout up in other neighborhoods across the Birmingham metro area.
“These gardens keep the neighborhoods beautiful, and that can spread to other areas,” she said. “If you get involved with watching something grow and taking care of it, you value it more. The bonus is that at the end of the season, you have all this wonderful, healthy food.”
That sense of ownership and community pride is also something Busenitz said organizers hope the community garden will help to flourish and thrive.
“The idea is to give people a chance to have their own gardens and raise their own food. It gives them ownership over those things, and that’s important,” he said.
Ann Lee of Crestline, another Mountain Brook Community Church volunteer, said working in the community garden has been a blessing to her on many levels.
“Our church wanted to have a real impact on the community and we wanted to meet new people, and that’s exactly what we’re able to do through this project. We’re out here working in God’s creation, growing healthy food and making new friends,” she said.
Two of the new friends Lee has met through her work at the community garden are Ki-Ki Griffin and her godmother, Charlotte Gray, both of Pratt City.
Griffin said volunteering in the garden is a way she can give can give back to the community and build relationships with people from different areas.
“It’s good to share this together, to be out here working together to help people who need help, and at the same time, you’re bringing different people together and building a larger community of people helping each other,” she said.
Gray, who has kept a garden at her home for years, said she enjoys sharing her green thumb skills and knowing that she’s helping others.
“So many people are hungry in this world and can’t afford good food,” she said. “I’m out here because I love gardening and I’m out here because that’s what God said we should do–help each other.”
Lesley Reynolds, who lives in Vestavia Hills and is a member of Mountain Brook Community Church, said she started volunteering in the community garden because she wanted to use her professional background to help others.
“I’m a dietician and wanted to use my background to get people, especially kids, interested in gardening. We started out by doing a planting activity with the girls from Grace House where we harvested food and then did a cooking activity. Now, the girls are out here working in the garden all the time, and they are learning so much about the importance of healthy, fresh food,” she said.
Not only does the community garden teach the girls at Grace House about nutrition and agriculture, but it also teaches them about their own potential, said Ericka Frye, the Grace House housemother.
“In the garden, they can see the process of something going from a small, tiny seed to what it is meant to be,” she said. “It changed their outlook and helps them realize God’s intentions and designs in everything. They get to see the power in themselves if they can learn to look at themselves as those tiny seeds with so much potential.”
The girls also learn what to do if something in the garden isn’t growing the way it should, Frye said, which offers a parallel lesson on how to approach challenges and problems that will inevitably sprout up in their lives.
“They learn that if they see something in the garden that’s not growing right, they have to find a solution to fix it. If the plant is withering, they learn they have to water it or it will die. It’s the same thing spiritually. They learn that if something is not right with their relationship with God, they have to fix it,” she said.
The girls at Grace House also learn the value of giving back and being productive members of the community by working in the garden, Frye said.
“They get to understand the joy of giving back when they share the food they’ve grown here. They also learn that they are not just consumers and that they have the power to produce something of value,” she said. “The garden really is like a living Sunday School class.”
Busenitz said the church volunteers hope they can bring that “living Sunday School class” experience to others throughout the Birmingham metro area.
“We are happy to help coach anyone through the process of starting a community garden and show them all that we have learned through this incredible experience,” he said.
For more information on volunteering at the Grace Village Community Garden, send an email message to email@example.com.