Advantage News article
By Melissa Meske – December 14, 2017
A Stronger Harvest with each season
Civic Pride continues to grow through Venice Garden Project
“We’re not just growing plants and produce. We’re growing people, a sense of community. Setting an example and harvesting a greater good.”
Those are among the first of Christina Schutze’s many passionate statements about the Venice Garden Project. Started 10 years ago with funding through Madison County and its Employment and Training Department, the project has grown beyond the borders of the soil that is filled with abundance each season.
“In the garden, we grow almost everything,” Schutze said. “We have corn, peppers, asparagus, squash, beets, cucumbers, watermelons, onions, leeks, eggplants, and even sunflowers.
We grow as many as eight different types of tomatoes, including heirlooms. This past year, we also worked with some apple trees. We are now able to work with Madison School District in their greenhouse during the off-season as well.”
Schutze has overseen the program for the past eight years, working with disadvantaged youths and displaced workers in Madison County and particularly with those from the Madison and Venice area communities and schools. Participants in the program, from early teens to 24, come from lower-income households and are required to pass background checks and drug screenings for entry. If participants are high school graduates, they are enrolled for training. If they are not high school graduates, they are also enrolled in completing their high school equivalency.
Program participants work with Schutze in the community gardens, parks and even in the greenhouse behind Madison Junior High. That greenhouse sat unused for many years after the power was inadvertently cut off to it 15 or 16 years ago and the pipes froze. George Grove, the school district’s plumber who fixed the lines and is an avid gardener, said, “Christina came in with this program and got it up and running full-scale again, and it’s very cool.”
Schutze explained what the participants in the program are involved with on-site through the work experience program.
“They prepare the soil, start the seed, till the soil, plant the starters, pull the weeds and harvest the bounty. They also mow the grass at the area parks and help maintain them. And they get paid up to 30 hours a week to do so while furthering their employment skills.”
Participants are being exposed to activities they might never experience if not involved in the project, and learning to become comfortable with the idea of stretching themselves out of their comfort zones. “Gardening, farming, landscaping — it can be seen as intimidating if it’s not your field,” she added. “Just like accounting can be for many of us who prefer to work the soil.”
The program aims to address needs of a small urban town that has minimal local options to buy healthy food.
“The participants are growing food for the community,” Schutze said. “They are learning how to not only grow, but maintain the produce and flowers. They learn about the proper usage of tools. We are creating orchards on abandoned lots and they are learning how to maintain them. They are also learning and using skills in the greenhouse and how the food cycle works.”
“We compost out in the garden too. We have a relationship with Gateway Regional Medical Center where we pick up their compost scraps and take them out to our gardens,” she added.
“Everything is organic as well, we don’t use any chemicals.
“We’re scrappers. We’re pickers. We use scraps of wood, for example, and place them in the garden and in the flower beds as borders or supports. We scavenge and repurpose. We’ll use other kinds of castoffs too whenever we can. A trellis we found became the home for some blackberry vines.
“We pick up litter too. We put recyclables where they need to go, and litter where it needs to go. It’s all about sustaining life. We bring things to life out here. We don’t kill them,” Schutze said.
In fact, earlier this year, three kittens were left in a box out by the gardens. The program participants all banded together, bottle-fed them until they were strong and found them good homes — “an unanticipated success story,” she said.
There are other skills that the program’s participants are growing and harvesting that spill from the borders of the garden’s rows and into their personal daily lives.
“We are creating a sense of community in these youth and young adults,” Schutze said. “While we are providing jobs for them, we are also setting an example of civic and community pride in them through the beautification work we do — picking up litter, repurposing and recycling, and giving back.”
A new project that is helping the whole program come full circle is the compilation of a community cookbook.
“The development of this cookbook is connecting these youth and young adults with the elderly in their communities,” Schutze said. “The participants are asking the older residents for their best recipes that utilize what is being grown in the garden. We’re connecting over generations.”
In return for their active program participation, the enrollees are increasing their skills and enhancing their resumés.
“But the experiences they are gaining from their work in the program is beyond compare,” Schutze said. “The connections they are making with people whom they might otherwise never interact with can turn out to be very beneficial. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time that leads to further opportunity.”
“I think it’s such an honor, such a privilege,” replied participant Reina Huergo when asked what she thought about being a part of the project. “I got hired in May, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s been quite an experience.”
Huergo, a practicing vegetarian, enjoyed the garden harvest and even more so perhaps the opportunity to eat healthy food because of her involvement.
Schutze shared similar sentiments, but from the viewpoint as manager.
“I feel very honored to mentor these kids,” she said. “This program is instilling so much about responsibility into the next generation. We are not just working together, we are a little family. They are not only learning work skills, they are learning social responsibility, too.”
As she tossed her smartphone gently across the greenhouse table, Schutze added, “We get them off this for a little while. Instead, they get dirty, they get small and close, and we talk. About the stuff that is real, and about where they are headed. What their goals are. Because at the end of the day, we still all have a job to do. We have food to grow, grass to cut, trees to plant and prune. We have booths to set up and distribute the harvest and animals to help. It’s not all in the job description — but when there’s a need, we try to pay attention and help.”
Hopeful next steps for the program include expanding into selling the harvest: the plants, flowers, vegetables and fruit.
“Creating a market, and finding other ways to keep the program funded and going,” Schutze said. “We are always looking for ways to strengthen our bonds within the community, to keep what we grow going strong and bountiful, and to keep our kids growing and going as well.”
If you’d like to learn more, brainstorm, donate or lend a helping hand, contact Schutze at (618) 420-0015. For more information about this program and many other opportunities available for youths, adults and employers through the Madison County Employment and Training Department, call (618) 296-4445.