By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
For many refugees who have been resettled in Louisville, the Catholic Charities Common Earth Gardens program has become a bridge between the life they lost and the one gained in their new home.
The community gardening program has also provided a source for fresh foods for refugee families, their neighbors and recently, the wider community.
On July 15, a group of growers and Catholic Charities employees harvested more than 700 pounds of greens, beets and turnips which were donated to the Dare to Care Food Bank.
At the heart of the program are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — feeding the hungry and comforting the sorrowful.
For many refugees, working the soil was a way of life they had to give up when circumstances forced them into refugee camps.
Many spend between five and 20 years living in these camps, said Laura Stevens, who is the community food services program coordinator at Catholic Charities and heads the Common Earth Gardens program.
“They have to leave everything behind and when they are resettled it’s in a tiny apartment without even any greenery around,” she said.
The Common Earth Gardens program, which started in 2007 as the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, is a way to connect the newcomers with their past while also providing a means to obtain fresh foods for their families.
Stevens said that being able to connect with that part of their life provides “health benefits” and “therapeutic benefits” for refugees. Working with other gardeners who may speak the same language “helps with loneliness and isolation” especially for the elderly ones who cannot work or rarely get the opportunity to leave their homes.
“The effect of people being outside and putting their hands in the soil helps them to feel at home again,” said Stevens.
The program, which is an initiative of the Catholic Charities Kentucky Office for Refugees, operates nine gardens with nearly 360 garden plots, on average 30-foot by 30-foot in size, and worked by 200 growers.
The program allows many of the gardeners to grow specialty foods they otherwise couldn’t find locally or foods that are sometimes too expensive when found in local stores.
Stevens said that many growers are saving between $600 to $1,000 per growing season (between April and October), “which is significant when living on a fixed income,” she said.
“Once someone has a garden plot it’s a space they can call their own and rely on for food,” Stevens said. Many of the growers share their crop with neighbors. A few also sell some of their yield to make extra income.
Any refugee or member of the community can own a garden plot said Stevens, noting there’s a long waiting list currently. The process involves filling out an application and paying a yearly fee which varies by garden.
Though many of the growers come from families who’ve been farmers for many generations and are themselves knowledgeable, the program requires them to attend monthly training meetings, said Stevens. The information gained at the meetings helps them to learn how to combat problems with insects and bugs, how to improve soil conditions and “get the most from their garden plots.”
Six of the nine gardens are community gardens where growers work side by side. They are located around the city usually in close proximity to where there are many refugees living. One garden, which is comprised of two acres of land, is shared by two families who grow produce to sell.
The garden on Millers Lane, from which produce was harvested for the food bank, serves as the training garden and one other located at St. Francis Xavier Church in Mount Washington, Ky., is tended by a group of parishioners who grow food for their local food banks.
The program which was started through a federal grant has become a success, said Stevens. She noted that though the grant ran out in 2013, Catholic Charities is committed to keeping the program going and even expanding it.
In partnership with St. John Vianney Church, the program is turning the old DeSales High School practice field on Kenwood Way into a 150-plot garden slated to be opened this fall, said Stevens. Thanks to donations from the Pax Christi Collaborative — St. Elizabeth ofHungary, Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Therese churches— a well has been drilled which will provide a water source for the garden.
Stevens said the program is always looking for donations and volunteers. She said if a parish is interested in sponsoring a garden they are welcome to do so.
For more information on the program, contact Stevens at 636-9263 ext. 256. For a listing of garden locations visit https://grow.cclou.org/community-gardens/.