Community garden takes root

A fall morning with the sun shining on a dew-kissed garden is made even more special by the fellowship of volunteers, and this garden is planted and harvested to serve as a community outreach for those who are hungry. First Lutheran Church in Alexandria began the First Lutheran Church Community Garden on South McKay Avenue in Alexandria in 2010. The idea of this community garden came from other community gardens, specifically the one planted by the Knights of Columbus in Garfield. “We have this acreage for the new church and we wanted to put our land to good use by providing food for the community and a place to share Christian fellowship,” said Paul Thompson. Thompson is one of the leaders of the church’s garden group along with Roger Thalman and Craig Smith, all of Alexandria. Thompson is also on the board for the Salvation Army and he added, “I know about the hunger that is going on in the community.” To begin the garden project, First Lutheran first applied for a grant with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Thrivent came forward with funds from its Community Service Team and donated $500. Eighty-seven volunteers helped to make the project work the first year, with 398 hours of cleaning the grounds, planting, weeding and harvesting. Supplies that included sprinklers were purchased, along with $900 of grass seed for the project. A total of $1,100 in expenses was incurred in starting the garden. One person anonymously donated an enormous amount of Burpee seeds to the garden efforts. The church had a metered hydrant installed near the garden to supply water at a cost of $3.45 per thousand gallons. The 2010 garden was a quarter acre and 2,171 pounds of produce was harvested and distributed. The church gave the produce to The United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties to distribute to Viking Towers, the Food Shelf, Prairie Community Services, Life Right and many other areas where people needed food. In 2011, the efforts of the volunteers resulted in a total of 2,531 pounds of produce that was given to those in need of food. Careful thought is given to what is planted in the garden. Items that can be harvested once to twice a week, such as summer squash, zucchini, corn, carrots, beets, pumpkins and potatoes are the vegetables of choice. The produce that is gathered is taken directly to the United Way office, and by the end of the day, it is distributed to the different locations. “Knowing that the food is in people’s homes that day means a lot us,” Thompson said. “We know people are needing it and using it.” Thompson also emphasized, “We are very specific about not making a dime off this land. We have people who will stop and ask if they can buy a bag a zucchini – we just give it to them.” The 2012 garden was increased to a half an acre and volunteers meet on Tuesdays and Fridays to reap what is mature. People will come to the garden with tractors and tillers and all that is necessary to make the garden productive. Many times volunteers will stop by on non scheduled harvest days to do anything they can to ensure the success of the garden. “I’ve talked to people that have told me they were out to the garden with their grandchildren to weed – so we know people come out when they want,” explained Thompson. The pride in the garden and volunteer efforts run deep as one church member and volunteer, Carol Thalman, smiled and said, “I wouldn’t sweat this much to get paid for it, but I will volunteer.” Even the youth of First Lutheran has been involved with the community garden. Students in grades 4 through 6 attended the camp, Grow in FLC, where FLC not only stood for First Lutheran Church, but also for Faith, Learning and Community. The campers harvested over 500 pounds of food. Twenty students participated along with several adult leaders. They learned about how the garden began and who the garden was intended to serve. Adults from the United Way and the Salvation Army were present to speak to the students as well. First Lutheran strives to be a real part of the community and they have noticed the community support of the garden has been positive. Along with people who will drive by and cheerfully honk at the volunteers in the garden. The United Way office has also received positive feedback in regard to the produce the church has donated. The church is intending to incorporate the garden into the new church design, which is planned for the spring of 2014. Blueprints show a gazebo that will be used in the garden area for everyone to enjoy. They also hope to set aside a portion of the garden for the Sunday school children to plant flowers. Thompson communicated how one visitor to the garden summed it up nicely by saying, “You know, we don’t have a cross or anything out here, but we do have a garden and that symbolizes what First Lutheran is about – the giving and sharing.” That giving and sharing has resulted in quite the bountiful harvest for the garden’s third year. In August, First Lutheran donated over 2,000 pounds of produce to the food drop at the Project Community Connect event in Alexandria. Over 300 area families attended the event. As the harvesting season nears its end, the selfless hard-working efforts of many volunteers have added to a successful growing and giving season. With only a few more vegetables to collect, First Lutheran has surpassed the totals of the last two years combined. Through the fruits of their labor, how joyful and prosperous the church volunteers have been in 2012. Over 6,600 pounds of freshly-picked vegetables have been provided for area residents, and the church has served as the outreach they strive to be.

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