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Garden helping to fulfill local needs

LENDING A HELPING HAND — Volunteers working in Unity Garden Saturday had to contend with heat and humidity, but that didn’t deter them. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — Hot as it was Saturday morning, the committed group that answered the call to work at Unity Garden on Dock Street didn’t let it keep them from the task at hand — removing weeds and making sure the plants are healthy.

“This year, our focus is getting people out, educating people on gardening and trying to motivate them to grow their own foods,” organizer Justice Slappy said.

“Especially now, with gas prices crazy high. This is a practical solution for dealing with hunger. We live in a food desert: Downtown, there’s no place to get fresh food in the downtown area. This is a place … where someone who is homeless, someone who is at their worst can come, not just to eat food but to come here and experience the frequencies of nature.”

The Unity Garden, now in its 15th year, is open to all. Those looking for fresh food are as welcome as those looking for a place to listen to the birds chirping or reflect on their blessings.

“We try to keep it organized and structured,” Slappy said. “We get the plants from (a local farmer) and we do the work, we plant them, but we always open up the garden: If someone wants to plant, if they have plants and we have places and spaces to put food, yes, they can come in and plant. It really is a community garden, it’s a community effort.”

Currently, you’ll find everything from corn, cucumbers squash, peppers, grapes, blueberries and raspberries to lemon balm, mint, medicinal herbs and chives, as well as a cherry tree, a maple tree, all sorts of flowers and birds.

“All we ask is they get educated on the plants that are here,” he says, that way no one, say, picks a watermelon before it’s ripe and then it goes to waste. “We’re here and we have conversations, we teach people.”

But along with the garden full of vegetables, Slappy figures they’re growing something else — something he figures is just as important.

“Outside of the vegetables, we’re growing community,” he said. “We have community members who call when something is going on, we have community members who cut the grass, community members who take care of the cat and feed the birds. We have community members who come together to help — this is a very nurturing community. That sign you see (at the front of the garden), ‘Putting the neighbor back in the hood.’ We’re missing that neighborly spirit, so this is a spot where people can come and have a dialogue and discuss very important topics.

Slappy said Unity Garden “is all about helping others become sustainable.” It’s a focus they share with Urban Mission and Sycamore Center, and both groups had volunteers at Saturday’s work session, to help out as well as compare notes.

“We’re trying to join together, trying to help them provide for our community members,” Slappy said. “One of the things we want to do is encourage other people to do this. If we can get 30 or 40 people growing, duplicating this process, we can have a powerful impact on hunger here. I have people who are on the list who don’t just want to grow, they want to share (what they grow).”

The Sycamore Center’s Bobbyjon Bauman said it’s about “bringing people together to do something, just as simple as coming together to put together a garden, fix it up.”

“You’re helping, of course, with the garden, but it’s also the unity that we’re bringing with people from very diverse backgrounds coming to work together on a common project and talking with one another and getting to know one another,” he said. “I think it’s been a real blessing. Also, people from the community can come in at any point to get food, it’s an open garden.”

The fact that the garden has flourished for so many years speaks volumes, he adds.

“People value what it means, what it stands for, the purpose of it,” Bauman said. “They can get around a Unity Garden that’s meant to bring unity and provide food and assistance for people in the area who need (help). They can walk in at any point and get something. That’s been a blessing as well.”

The Sycamore Center’s Jenna Edwards and Sara Stroup were there to help, too. The pair applied for and were awarded a Serve Ohio grant to help with Unity Garden as well as Urban Mission’s Backyard Food Garden Center.

“It’s great to have food sources and places downtown where you can just relax and be in nature,” Edwards said, while Stroup pointed out the gardens give “free access to food for citizens of Steubenville, so they can come down and just sit in the garden and enjoy nature and grab some food to take home to their family.

“It’s just a peaceful place to come.”

Slappy pointed out that’s by design, too: He said the garden is organized into stations, “a prayer station, a healing station, a gratitude station … all different stations that emphasize developing different aspects of yourself.”

“Everybody’s who’s a part of this helps,” he said. “So many different people are coming from all around, coming together, unified, to build unity. Yes, we’re planting, but the biggest thing is we’re actually growing community spirit. That’s what it’s all about. When you come here you have the birds, you can smell the flowers … those are all things we definitely need in our lives. The hustle-bustle of the world is so fast-paced, we lose ourselves in that.”

Slappy said you can find out more about the Unity Garden project online at teamunity740.org.

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