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  • Akron Beacon Journal

    Seeds of change: How Akron community gardens hope to uplift their neighborhoods

    By Bryce Buyakie, Akron Beacon Journal,

    2024-06-13
    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3Q9SUE_0tpwf6wF00

    LaSalle Harris sees her South Akron neighborhood as a food desert, lacking nearby access to affordable fresh and healthy food. Often the nearest shops are corner stores, she said, which sell alcohol, nicotine and processed foods.

    To plant the seed of change, she started the JoAnna House II community garden roughly eight years ago. But her goal is more than just teaching people how to garden, provide for themselves and offer a source of fresh food.

    Harris, like her counterparts at Godrich Food and Farmers Project, aims to educate, support and help bring their neighborhoods together. (That's Godrich with one 'o' to give one of Akron's most famous names a religious twist.)

    "There's a lot of empty land around that could be used to help," Harris said of her neighborhood.

    Two United States Department of Agriculture officials toured two Akron community gardens Wednesday, including Harris' operation. One official, Dewayne Goldmon hopes to learn more about community gardening for the USDA's Urban Agriculture Initiative.

    "The project is about shoring up our food system," Goldmon said, the senior advisor on Racial Justice and Equity to the US secretary of agriculture. "We're here to learn about urban farming and to give examples of how to do this."

    The USDA initiative would help urban farmers like Harris and those at Godrich to feed their communities, Goldmon said.

    More than just community gardening

    Before the community garden launched in 2016, there was the JoAnna House II Ministry. Harris founded that in 2009 after she exited a recovery program, hoping to help women and anyone else seeking drug recovery.

    To do this, she has houses throughout the South Akron neighborhood that help women, veterans and those in need of a sober place to stay, she said. The garden, Harris said, is one way people can heal and grow.

    Constance Bozeman, an outreach specialist for the Summit County Health Department, said JoAnna House II has supplies of Narcan throughout its facilities, which aids in its mission of drug recovery.

    "We are also working with employers to help them assist their employees who are going through recovery," Bozeman said, referring to the health department's Recovery Friendly Workplace.

    Building back for the love of community and gardening

    Al-yssia Junius played in the dirt as a kid, but the 18-year-old said she never had gardened or grown flowers or vegetables.

    "I've never had food right off a plant," Junius said. "It's scary. I don't want to eat any bugs on it."

    Junius is one of many who volunteer at the Godrich urban farm at the old Goodrich Middle School, overlooking Interstate 77.

    She and a dozen other teenagers showed up for the USDA visit Wednesday to show their support and work on their garden plots, pulling weeds and clearing debris.

    "It keeps me out of trouble," she said. "I want to plant watermelons, but we already have those. But pineapples would be cool."

    Creating positive change out of blight

    Louise Johnson has a vision for the old school. The nearly five acres of land will be renovated, turning the grassy fields into community gardens and plots full of trees and plants that produce a variety of nuts, fruits, herbs and vegetables.

    The school building will become housing. In one corner of the structure, her colleague Graham Towerton hopes to make use of new technology that would turn plastics into fuel to power the site and possibly the community.

    "Why tear down such a historic building in the neighborhood when we can renovate it," said Johnson, who supports the program through her nonprofit Business Training Capital Resource.

    Her goal is to support local families and youth by teaching them how to provide for themselves while introducing them to various resources and programs to educate and aid in mental and physical health.

    In the last two years, Johnson said, the program experienced setbacks when tools, materials and plants were stolen from the property — but that hasn't stopped her. Partnered with various ministries, community programs and local leaders, Johnson knows her team will rebound and grow stronger for it.

    Healing through gardening

    One Godrich team member is James Johnson, a master gardener who joined the program in 2021. For him, this project has become his passion.

    After serving in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012, Johnson said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and the associated anxiety that comes with it. Everyday jobs felt meaningless to him, so his mental health declined.

    But throughout those struggles, he fell back on gardening, which has helped him cope and arrive at a better mental place, he explained.

    "I'm a bit of a nerd about plants and gardening," he said. "I'm really into food and herbs, but I really like to learn about how medicinal herbs work with the body."

    For him, the community garden has been life-changing, and he hopes to bring that sort of change to a community he calls home.

    To donate or learn more about the Godrich Food and Farming Project, visit https://btcresources.org/.

    Bryce Buyakie covers courts and public safety for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached by email at bbuyakie@gannett.com or on X, formerly known as Twitter, @bryce_buyakie.

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