Teacher spends own money, gives time for community garden
WASHINGTON PARK, Illinois (Belleville News-Democrat) – Derissa Davis’ energy seemed limitless on May 8 as she pursued her community’s vision of turning an abandoned land into a vegetable patch that will serve families in the surrounding food desert.
“Whatever we grow we will give,” said Davis, a fourth-grade reading teacher at James Avant Elementary School.
The idea for the small children’s garden started with a group of third-graders who sent letters to the village mayor describing what they would like to see changed in their community, and the idea for a community garden is appeared.
Parts of Washington Park are in a food desert, meaning the village has a large number of households with no vehicles or nearby access to a grocery store. In the western part of the village, nearly 23% of households do not have a vehicle and live more than a kilometer from a supermarket. Much of the surrounding area of East St. Louis is also considered a food desert, according to federal definitions.
To build a garden that could directly address this problem, the students needed a space. This is where Davis came in.
She paid $ 1,700 out of her own pocket at a 2019 St. Clair County auction for a third of an acre that people were using as a dumping ground.
“This is what the kids wanted,” Davis said.
Wreckage of broken down cars and thick brush loomed over the terrain at 4701 Forest Blvd. The weeds were taller than Davis, growing much taller than his elementary students.
She set out to mobilize volunteers and donors to clear the land, eventually recruiting help from charitable groups, sociology students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and fellowship members in the area. By early 2020, they had cleared the ground.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to school and all of its extracurricular activities. The Little Children’s Garden will have to wait. And on Saturday, a year after he intended to start planting, volunteers like Keith Johnson, president of the Belleville-O’Fallon Kappa Alpha Psi Brotherhood, were in the garden building and filling raised beds.
“We’re here to help beautify the city and teach kids how to invest in the community the right way,” said Johnson, who organized a group of fellowship members to volunteer. “If you aren’t proud of your community, no one will be. “
Johnson and his fraternity were just one of the groups Davis recruited. She enlisted the help of Connie Frey Spurlock, Director of Successful Community Collaboration at SIUE. The collaboration is recruiting students to help with community projects in southwest Illinois.
Davis also successfully applied for support from a regional St. Louis-based nonprofit, Gateway Greening, which donated all materials and labor for six raised beds 4ft by 12 feet. She has proven in her application that she has the resources and support from the community to maintain the garden for the long term.
Another volunteer, Pastor Willie Stallworth of the Lansdowne Community Initiative in East St. Louis, loaned his group’s bush pig to clear the remaining brush earlier this spring.
Davis plans to keep the kids and volunteers busy in the garden throughout the summer.
“At this point, with our loss of learning with COVID, anything that keeps them engaged in these hands-on activities is helping,” Davis said.
Johnson, the chairman of the fraternity, did not know Davis before getting involved with the project, but said what she is doing to give back to Washington Park is invaluable.
“The food they can provide and bring the kids into the farm part, learn these skills, you can’t beat it,” Johnson said. “She is a person of service and has a gift for giving back.”
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