On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a quiet garden plot was transformed into a bustling, multi-generational, community-service project behind the senior center in Orono. A dozen or so volunteers, some of them in wheelchairs, showed up to harvest onions, squash, garlic and beans and prepare them for delivery. They filled 57 reusable bags — this week’s harvest for 57 senior citizens who live nearby in low-income housing.
If it were an annual event, it would be heartwarming. But it happens every Tuesday from July through September and has been going on for 11 years — facts that make it extraordinary.
John Jemison launched the Orono Community Garden in 2004 while teaching a class in sustainability at the University of Maine. As part of their 24-hour service requirement, students could help with the garden Jemison created that year. Today, University of Maine students still are a regular part of the garden’s “core team.” But enormous community support also has helped keep it going, with particular generosity in recent years from Orono’s Church of the Universal Fellowship.
The most unique aspect of this particular community garden is the multi-layered benefits it achieves in health and education. Students and volunteers from throughout the community learn about sustainable and organic gardening techniques while they work with Jemison in the 50 or so garden beds throughout the growing season. There is constant experimentation, rotation of crops and trying new things.
“Everything isn’t always a grand success,” Jemison said, “but that’s farming.”
Many former volunteers have taken what they learned here and launched farming projects of their own. In his work in food systems and sustainability, Jemison examines large, regional systems and small, local ones. He sees both as equally important to long-term global health.
“This garden is a model for how a small-scale operation can work for a community, and I hope it will stimulate similar things in the future,” he said.
The benefits to recipients health are vast but also can be difficult to quantify. Not only do the recipients of the garden’s produce have the ability to eat more healthfully, but they also benefit from the personal connection of the weekly home delivery.
Jemison and one of his core volunteers, Julia Hathaway, spoke with fondness about one of their longtime recipients, Mary Frazier, who died last June.
“She used to say it was like Christmas every Tuesday,” Hathaway said. The anticipation was not just for the vegetables but also for the conversation. “Sometimes people just want to talk,” Hathaway said.
“She asked for extra large zucchinis so she could make zucchini bread for the volunteers,” Jemison said.
Volunteers, too, enjoy a variety of benefits not easily quantified. Working in community with others, outside, with hands in the soil and tangible work to accomplish is a therapeutic activity, especially when it is shared across generations and levels of ability. Among the regulars who show up on Tuesdays are members of “Community Ties,” a day program for adults with disabilities, part of Independence Advocates of Maine. They arrive almost every week in their wheelchairs, accompanied by program workers, to help wash vegetables in plastic bins of water.
As time passed that particular Tuesday, more and more people, from the very young to the not so young, showed up, rolled up their sleeves and got to work, often after warm hugs of greeting. One Americorps volunteer, a new regular, brought a first-timer friend.
Before and after harvest season, volunteers gather for composting, planting, weeding and the highly celebratory garlic-planting day every October. Families, seniors, students, dogs — such as German Shepherd “Mika,” whom Jemison referred to as “our hero dog” — everyone comes together to share camaraderie, learning, good health and community service. At the heart of the project is human connection.
“People care,” Hathaway said. “People really bond here. It’s a spiritual experience.”
Jemison has worked on many projects in many capacities since he started at the extension program at the University in 1990, but the community garden holds a particularly cherished place in his heart.
“I’m proud of a lot of things,” he said, “but when all is said and done, this is probably the most fun. It’s very meaningful. When I retire, I will look back most fondly on this.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.