Building community through gardening

Bethany Community Gardens brings local wellness organizations, food pantries and residents together

By Nancy Price

A Southside church’s goal to help locals with food insecurity has brought together hundreds of like-mind volunteers to create a growing community garden.

Three years ago, representatives of Bethany Lutheran Church, including Beech Grove resident Bruce Bye, discussed their desire to help the local community. They met with two dozen area leaders to identify critical needs and created three goals: provide access to fresh vegetables for adults and children; use the Bethany Community Gardens as a hands-on classroom for individuals in their neighborhood as well as the children in the Bethany Early Learning Ministry Pre-K class; and use gardening to bring neighbors together.

Through that process, Bye was introduced to the Health & Wellness Team, a partnership of residents, health care providers, environmental advocates and public health leaders in the South Indy community.

Bruce Bye, right, serves as co-coordinator of Bethany Community Gardens along with Craig Jungemann. (Photo by Neal Smith)

“The strong mission and early success with the Bethany Community Garden created a synergy that caused other organizations to want to join in the action,” said Michelle Salinas, South Indy QOL plan director.

A COLLABORATION OF LIKE MINDS

We were all struck by how similar the South Indy Health and Wellness Goals and the Bethany Lutheran Church’s goals were,” added Linda Adams, a community wellness coordinator for Purdue Extension-Marion County on the Southside. “It was decided that we would collaborate together to bring about a community garden on the Bethany Lutheran garden property for the purpose of teaching gardening and raising produce for local food pantries.”

Ginny Roberts, Purdue Extension Urban Garden Manager, taught free gardening classes on the property, which brought interested residents from all around the Southside. “Each class brought new people,” Adams said. “The participants really enjoyed the classes and the community meal and socializing that the class/meal combination created. We had definitely tapped into something that was needed in the community.”

Bethany Community Gardens is on the property of Bethany Lutheran Church at 4702 S East St. (Submitted photo)

Bye added that the initiative has grown with the number of volunteers tending to the garden, which has, in part, helped to provide more fresh organic vegetables provided to families in need. Produce is given to local food pantries, Hunger, Inc. and Servant’s Heart of Indy in Beech Grove. “The number of pounds of produce given away increased from 800 pounds in 2018 to 4,900 pounds in 2019,” he said. “Part of this increase was because the size of the garden doubled to 10,000 square feet in 2019, and the soil was more productive because of natural compost that was added.”

SHARING THE WEALTH

The Southside food pantries sent volunteers to participate in the garden class series the first year. “They have gardened alongside us ever since,” Adams said. “Both food pantries have found a very nice response from the food pantry clients for having access to fresh vegetables. Last year, we ended up having an abundance of produce that it was nearly even too much produce for our two main partnering food pantries. We took it as an opportunity to share the produce even further by taking produce to Andrew’s Harvest Food Pantry, The Chin Center and to the IMPACT Center (a ministry of Mount Pleasant Christian Church).”

Additional volunteers include Beech Grove FFA members, the University of Indianapolis Super Saturday of Service, Marion County Master Gardeners, members of the Chin community and neighbors of Meridian Place. “In 2019, the number of student volunteers increased from 41 to 63, and for the first time in 2019, an additional 25 students who are Beech Grove FFA members received compensation from a Marion County Farm Bureau grant,” Bye said. “In 2019, total attendance was 753, with 175 at five gardening classes, 72 at two April community gatherings, 104 at National Night Out and 402 garden volunteers at 22 different garden work sessions.”

Colin and Trent Eckstein are FFA members from Beech Grove High School. (Photo by Neal Smith)

“This year, 10 of our garden workers have volunteered to also be team leaders, where they are responsible for specific garden vegetables,” he added. “They have researched best growing techniques, including different styles of trellises and sometimes also work with a small group in the garden other than the normal Tuesday evening group volunteer time. Several of our volunteers are master gardeners, and some have experience in states other than Indiana. We always welcome volunteers, either those who are brand new to gardening or those who are highly experienced.”

NEIGHBORS COMING TOGETHER

Sandra Giliberto, president of the Meridian Place Homeowner’s Association and volunteer with Bethany Community Garden, said Meridian Place neighbors have enjoyed volunteering their time with their own personal garden plot, especially the Chin population, which makes up about 30 to 40 percent of the neighborhood. “They take very good care of the garden; they are happy about that,” she said. “I’m always sharing the beauty of the community garden with everybody,” she said. “The whole purpose is to bring community and to bring everybody together,” she said.

Volunteers gather produce to deliver to one of the local food pantries Bethany serves. (Submitted photo)

Anyone who is interested in being a part of the development of the new Southdale Neighborhood Association or wanting to learn more about Bethany Community Gardens may contact Bruce Bye at (317) 783-7283. Bethany Community Gardens also has a Facebook page with a sin-up genius at bit.ly/3eOocke for work groups. Anyone is welcome to join in the work and harvest.

NEIGHBORHOOD OF THE YEAR

Bethany Community Gardens, nominated by the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, was recently awarded the Neighborhood USA’s Neighborhood of the year award in the multi-neighborhood of the year category and awarded $1,000. Representatives of the garden have been invited to attend and present a breakout session at the 2021 National Neighborhood USA Conference in Ft. Worth, Texas, next spring.