KIRKLAND – Jimmy Colgan of Genoa rinsed his hands off after filling seed containers in the germination room at Walnut Grove Vocational Farm, 33600 Pearl St., Wednesday. He said he plans to watch the new Sonic The Hedgehog movie with a friend for Valentine's Day.
"I like planting," said Colgan, 31, who's been working at Walnut Grove for four years. He spent time chatting with Dan Kenney as they prepped trays for early planting as DeKalb County Community Gardens heads into its growing season where they'll tend to over 250 garden beds around the county.
Colgan is part of a program that services around 100 adults with developmental and physical disabilities through DeKalb County Community Gardens and The Gracie Center, which merged into the community gardens this year.
The merger is just the latest in the community gardens' growth spurt since it first began in 2012, and over the years its partnered with over 70 different organizations to shape it into what it is today: a community-minded organization made up of staff and volunteers working to end food insecurity and address hunger shortages in the county.
The growth of the organization has been fast. In 2013, it reported revenues of about $17,500, according to documents filed with the IRS and archived by the ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer. In 2018, the most recent year for which information is available, the organization reported almost $153,000 in revenue.
Debra Johnson, 23, of Waterman, along with Colgan and others in the group, hops on a TransVAC bus directly from her home and heads to the farm in Kirkland twice a week. While there, she spends the day learning carpentry, landscaping and cooking skills, and, of course, gardening.
"I like to help," Johnson said, as she hoisted a bag of dirt above a basin to fill the planting trays.
Johnson began coming to Walnut Grove when she was attending Life School, the Sycamore school district's transitional program for high schoolers with disabilities, and during that time helped build benches to be sold for fundraising purposes. It's a partnership that the community gardens has with DeKalb District 428 and Sycamore District 427, too. Easterseals out of Rockford also comes down to the farm regularly.
When students would age out of the high school transitional programs, their parents would often be at a loss for where to next go to find opportunities for their children. Under new management, the Gracie Center's spirit will continue through the DeKalb County Community Gardens, to ensure young adults with disabilities in the region are not forgotten, Kenney said.
"It's meaningful," Kenney, who founded DCCG, said. "Students appreciate what we're doing out here and feel a part of the community more, because they know what they're doing leads to food that goes into the community."
The Gracie Center merge was a natural fit, Kenney said, because participants were already coming out to the farm regularly. Gracie Center program staples such as its' Pop-Up shop and monthly Crew Cafes, where participants made and served lunch for the community, will continue under the oversight of community gardens staff, Kenney said.
At the farm in Kirkland, they'll prune plants, sow seeds, package plants for planting, care for chickens and more.
Although it's still winter, seeds for 75 different varieties of tomatoes, squash, kale, cabbage, begonias, petunias and more have already been planted and are nestled in trays underneath grow lights in the greenhouses at the farm. From there, they'll grow into maturity and be dispersed to the 250 raised garden beds around the county and on the farm, or sold. When it's harvest time, volunteers and staff will hand out fresh produce in the gardens' Grow Mobile, a traveling food pantry, or at the Genoa Area Community Food Hub, which opened last week and also houses the Genoa-Kingston Food Pantry.
The vocational work is also about the process, and instilling in its participants the idea that they, too, can produce meaningful work that can be of benefit to others, said Heather Edwards, program director and DCCG associate director.
"They can seed it, watch it sprout, watch it grow, and then be sold," Edwards said "You can measure that productivity, from beginning to end."
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