By Maureen Smith
CLARKSDALE – A year ago Henry White started work on an idea to turn the unused field behind Immaculate Conception Parish into a community garden. Today, seven acres are plowed and planted. A half-acre section of that is a model garden where anyone can learn how to plant their own container or raised-bed garden. The parish has already hosted a farmer’s market, secured several grants and services from local farmers and the plan continues to evolve and expand. It was part of a larger project spearheaded by a group he calls the “Community Engagers” to make the community healthier and establish relationships with the neighbors. White is a member of the parish’s Faith in Action team. He credits Immaculate Conception and St. Elizabeth as the core partners in his effort.
“Torrential rains may have delayed spring planting, nevertheless, relationship building and identifying resources became priority number one. With the generosity of Immaculate Conception and Ladies Auxiliary as well as donations received from people like you, Community Engagers launched several programs and activities that truly embraced the ideology of our mission: “forging ideas into opportunity, sustaining neighborhoods and community through action and service,’” wrote White in an emailed update to supporters.
Partners in the effort include Bowing Flowers’ farm, Catholic Charities and Alcorn State University. Grants have come from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Porch Society, the Kathryn Donahue Foundation and Positive Change in Mississippi.
The project began with the establishment of a grow-room in the former school, where toddlers planted seeds and watched them sprout. While the seeds germinated 130 graduating seniors created the model garden as part of a service project. They transferred some of the seedlings into the beds and containers and helped care for them. In May, the group distributed more than 2,000 seedlings to individuals, families and first-time gardeners. White said he could see a sense of pride and renewed interest as members of the entire neighborhood participated in the plan to live healthier lives and grow some of their own food.
“Community Engagers is not just a community garden but a means of providing a sustainable food source that promotes nutritional awareness and overall health and wellness for the community. Henry (White) has a holistic approach to health and wellness – and is integrating the values of inclusiveness, diversity and culture through engagement with community members,” said Dorothy Balser, who works for Catholic Charities in north Mississippi and helped found the Faith in Action Team.
On July 2, the parish hosted a First Harvest Family & Friends Farmer’s Market. Community Engagers purchased locally and regionally sourced eggs, fruits and vegetables to sell at cost. White said the group hopes to be able to sell crops from the seven acres when they are harvested, but he wanted to introduce the idea of a farmer’s market to the neighborhood. He has started paperwork to be able to accept EBT cards for people who receive government assistance. He also hopes to organize volunteer groups to glean fields donated by local farmers to add to his inventory and distribute to people in the area who may need food. He will rely on local social service agencies to identify families in need.
The group is even sprucing up the former Immaculate Conception school building, which sits in front of the field, by painting murals on the walls. The students who planted and transferred seeds this spring have completed one of the murals on the garden side and White has asked for help from other locals to paint more.
White has his eye on more grant opportunities and always welcomes volunteers. Those interested in getting involved can contact him at (443) 939-0575.
By Maureen Smith