An Encouraging Experience
5 April 2016
Anyone who reads my writings with frequency knows that I do a lot of lamenting over the condition of America. I believe we are in a tremendous and dangerous decline when assessed by any standard that reflects common sense and adherence to sound moral values. If you have not read any of my previous columns that reflect this state of my deep sadness and concern, go to http://karlmerritt.pairsite.com/articles/ and read a few. I contend that reading some of these columns will allow for better understanding as to why the experience I want to recount now had such a profoundly positive impact on me.
Let me start with some background. It must have been 2008 when I happened to be present at a Fayetteville City Council meeting and Candace Williams proposed to Council the building of a community garden. Candace talked about her experience with community gardening in Boston, Massachusetts. As I remember it, she talked more about how community gardening fosters relationship-building and unity among those who participate. Yes, she talked about having fresh food and nutrition, but the community-building got my attention.
After the meeting, I introduced myself to Candace, expressed my interest in what she had proposed, and eventually became a member of the group she assembled to assist with moving the garden project forward. From recruiting an architect who prepared an amazing plan for the garden to raising funds so that it could be constructed without any government funding, Candace Williams was impressive. More importantly, she knew what was possible by way of building community and she pursued it. The result is Fayetteville Community Garden at the corner of Mann and Vanstory Streets. Occupying five acres and having 94 raised plots, it is a place that can do far more good for our city and area than comes to mind when the garden is simply seen as a garden.
Candace Williams helped me to see when looking at the garden far beyond a place to grow vegetables and beautiful flowers. It has become clear to me that before we can successfully address the very difficult issues that divide us there must be opportunities in safe places to develop relationships. We must know about one another’s life journey, be able to make “small talk” and in the process come to respect and care for each other. My experience in the garden since it opened in 2009 has proved Candace Williams to be right…positive relationships are formed in a garden and community happens.
Over the course of a couple of years of the lamenting mentioned above, I kept asking God what I should do beyond writing. He answered, but I procrastinated. The answer was help give full life to the Fayetteville Community Garden. Given my life journey (naval service, pastor, realtor, writer), helping make a garden vision live did not seem to fit. In the end, I decided to “do it.” So, I contacted Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation because they manage the garden. I offered to organize a volunteer effort with the aim of assisting in maintaining and beautifying the garden…to help make it a centerpiece in our area. With necessary arrangements in place with Parks and Recreation, I was allowed to proceed. The department has been fully cooperative and supportive.
Shortly after getting approval to start work, I appeared on WFNC Radio in Fayetteville and discussed the project. After that interview, Tommy Stewart called me. Tommy is Recreation Center Supervisor at Spivey Recreation Center. He said someone told him I was on radio talking about a project involving the garden and he wanted to discuss it. We met and he immediately understood and got excited about the possibilities. We agreed to work together. He suggested meeting with Crystal Glover who is Youth Development & Cultural Arts Program Coordinator with Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks & Recreation. She is lead for the Fayetteville-Cumberland Youth Council.
We met with Crystal and she caught fire. In that meeting it was agreed the Youth Council would organize a garden clean-up for 9 April. Crystal asked me for a work plan and they took it from there. Tommy Stewart handled his logistics tasks perfectly.
Now comes the morning of 9 April. Young people start showing up. Crystal arrives with the work plan laminated and introduces several young ladies. Among them was Jordan Bursting, a 12th grader. She was responsible for using the work plan to form teams and make work assignments. The adults, including me, answered a few questions when asked. Some helped serve lunch. Otherwise, we watched Jordan run that operation like a finely tuned machine. Those young people worked hard together while taking justifiable pride in their work and accomplishments. Not one time did I hear any of them confront Jordan or question her authority.
Initially I thought all of the volunteers were members of the Youth Council. Not the case. They had invited young people from other organizations to participate. That meant there were probably youth who had not met before, who came from different neighborhoods and backgrounds. However, except that by chance I was told about the recruiting approach, I would never have thought this was not a group that often spent time together. As to why this kind of relationship building happens in a garden, do not ask me for some scholarly analysis…I just know it happens.
Tyshica Smith-Tucker was one of the adults present. She is with Man-Up Mentor, a male mentoring program, at Gray’s Creek Middle School. Tyshica told me about how she watched as an adult male who happened to be in the garden assisted some boys as they were building a decorative concrete piece. She described how he patiently interacted with those boys while helping, but not being overbearing. He showed genuine concern. Her closing statement was, “That’s the way mentoring should be done.” More relationship building.
In a time when there is so much discussion of and attention to disciplinary problems in our schools, it was refreshing and encouraging beyond belief to see how respectful these young people were toward adults and toward one another. They were extremely considerate of others.
I could go on for pages and still not adequately address all that was so positive as I watched those young people work and interacted with them. I came away from the experience counting 9 April as among the best days of my life. This was a day when my lamenting was forced into remission by the hope I saw in a bunch of wonderful young people.
If you would like to know more about our efforts to help maintain and beautify the Fayetteville Community Garden, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my cell at (910)308-4596.