By Kellie Himes, Occupational Therapy major, originally published in Saint Francis University Magazine Spring/Summer 2014
Have you ever taken a moment to stop and consider your relationship with the natural world? This is precisely what Francis of Assisi did in his “Canticle of Creation,” which exudes praise to God for the various corners of creation that provide necessities to the earth. Francis preached of a deep reverence for our earth, which manifested itself through his devoted interaction with his surroundings. It is through this passionate expression of love and commitment that Francis of Assisi inspired the same Franciscan community that founded what is now Saint Francis University.
As an SFU student I have begun over the last three and a half years to consider my duty to abandon certain habits of the mind and view the world around me with a humble and generous attitude. Armed with the encouraging testaments of St. Francis, I began a journey to promote relationships between creation and people. Using my Honors thesis project as an avenue for development, I worked with the Dorothy Day Center (DDC) to establish an on-site community garden project.
The DDC is a volunteer-based facility on campus that serves local families in need of support. The namesake of the facility, Dorothy Day, was a 20th century activist. Similar to Francis, she was known for her willingness to advocate for justice and for her determined drive to serve God through caring for those in need.
Establishing a garden project at the DDC is one way that I envisioned carrying on the legacy of St. Francis and Dorothy Day. The hope was to provide not only locally grown and nutritious food for the clients, but also to educate them on how to build a mutually dependent relationship with the earth and to expand their knowledge and awareness of personal health. These objectives are at the very core of my future vocation as an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists aim to provide the skills, knowledge, and ability for people to independently care for themselves and accomplish meaningful tasks.
The garden project works to provide the DDC clients an opportunity to better understand that the food they consume, and where it comes from, has a direct relationship with his or her overall health and wellness. Additionally, I wanted this garden project to inspire and engage the SFU community in a direct way. One partnership that has emerged is with SFU’s Torvian Dining Hall. Some of the produce grown in the DDC gardens is sold to Torvian on a bi-monthly schedule. This interaction has proven to be a successful relationship that is sure to flourish with time.
At the birth of the garden concept, as is common with many new endeavors, the enthusiasm was high and the ambitions even greater. As a student juggling the demands of school, work, and personal expectations, I had to reel myself in and understand that this project has immense potential, but requires patient nurturing. While the DDC staff provided me with faithful encouragement, I provided them with a design for growth. The goals we established began with the expansion of the garden space from the single plot that existed at the time. Connections were established with SFU staff to provide person and machine power, while community volunteers were also recruited. From the hard work and dedication of all the volunteers, the space expanded from the lone garden strip to three long and fertile plots.
The next step was welcoming DDC clients into the program. The hope was to provide them with the education necessary to learn to plant, grow, and harvest produce, while simultaneously offering a hands-on opportunity to apply these skills. Gardening tips and vegetable information sheets were developed as take-home materials. Guided produce and meal preparation experiences were also on the slate as an activity to engage clients participating in this holistic gardening adventure.
As mentioned, the excitement for the premiere of this service was extensive; however, the humbling truth was that the growth of an interactive program such as this would not fully flourish before the completion of my Honors thesis. Surveys that were developed to determine change in client’s under¬standing of gardening, nutrition, and self-care were set aside and my educational goal for the project shifted. My thesis gave me the motivation to actively pursue the implementation of this program, but the educational purpose evolved from a short-term observational study to a learning experience devoted to establishing a specialty program.
This article is only a small insight into the development and future potential of this program. I am happy to report that client interaction started as early as fall harvest 2013, with clients hand-picking produce from the garden to take home. Brother Marty, the director of the DDC, stated, “Clients have expressed gratitude and thanks for being able to have fresh produce from our community garden. One of our clients, whose food stamps were cut, said that without the fresh produce they would not have been able to provide vegetables for their family.”
Additional crops were planted as late as October to be harvested in November and December. The gardens are currently tilled and ready for spring planting, which will start as early as the end of March; however, with the winters we get here in Cambria County we all know we might have to wait a little longer until we can plant for spring-time crops! The future of this garden space is bright and I would like to thank all of those who helped me expand my vision and put it into action. I would especially like to express my gratitude to the staff of the DDC and its volunteers for their enthusiasm and long-term commitment to this program.
Support the gardens: If you would like to show your support to the growth of the DDC garden program please contact Brother Marty Zatsicky, T.O.R., at: MZatsick@francis.edu, 814-472-3359.