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Little Green Spaces Have Big Impacts in South L.A.

The "Planted Dreams Garden" outside the All Peoples Community Center at 822 E. 20th St. in South L.A.

The little boy tearing through the hallway at the All Peoples Community Center pulled up abruptly when he spotted Crystal Gonzalez, the Peace Education Coordinator with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

"When are we going to do the garden class?" he asked excitedly, jumping up and down. "I want to do the worms again!!"

Gonzalez occasionally held garden workshops for the youth involved in the after-school programs at All Peoples, she explained, and one of the previous workshops had involved letting kids get their hands dirty while learning about composting and the role of worms.

Garden workshops are a special treat for the younger kids because she usually works with high-school age students in continuation school and, more recently, parents of some of the youth involved in activities at the center.

In fact, it was her work with the parents that had brought me to the Center.

Last year, with the help of a donation from the Mayor's Good Food Day LA campaign, Gonzalez, along with other AFSC volunteers and members of the community spent a weekend breaking ground on a 50' x 15' plot outside All Peoples. After clearing weeds and building garden beds, the plots were raffled off to parents and planting began.

"The first [season] was a disaster!" parent Alejandra told me, laughing.

They had either watered too much or too little and hadn't had the right soil.

"It was like sand," she said.

Now they used compost from their own bins and things seem to be moving along much better, Gonzalez told me.

Alejandra tends to her plot outside the All Peoples Community Center

"Better" wasn't the word I would have used. Alejandra's plot offered an impressive selection of lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, and herbs in a rich array of gorgeous greens.

She and her kids loved plants, she told me, and had some at home as well. Participating in the garden also gave her the chance to share recipes with the other gardeners.

They were always talking about new combinations of things and new juice recipes to try, she said, holding up a bag of greens she intended to take home and juice with pineapple to help her husband lower his cholesterol.

Fruit vendor and garden-enthusiast extraordinaire Don Bernardo had bigger-picture issues in mind.

All this asphalt around us, he said in Spanish, gesturing to the street alongside the Center, it is like a cast put upon an arm. What happens to the arm underneath? It wastes away. It is important that we care for the earth in an organic way and that we teach the youth the growing process. They need to be educated about how the earth keeps us alive.

But, it's often hard to interest youth in gardening, isn't it? I asked.

Fruit vendor Don Bernardo stands next to his plot outside the All Peoples Community Center

It's about education, he said, snapping a twig off a tree and bending over to point out a portion of a plant that was doubled over.

Just as plants need help, he stuck the twig in the soil and twisted the stalk around it to help it stand upright, so do our children. Start them off strong and support them and they will stand tall and move in the right direction.

Then he returned to questions of global health, saying that the work of organic gardeners was necessary to help return the earth to a healthier state.

It is a message that even some of the continuing ed. youth appear to be grasping, thanks to the work of Gonzalez.

Showing me the high-schoolers' garden (a second 50' x 15' plot) alongside the Center, she said the plot felt like a real ecosystem, especially during the summer. That project had been launched three years ago, after the Center had called AFSC asking for help in setting up a garden that could serve to both inspire the community and empower youth. Since then, it has become a favorite spot for the youth, especially those that previously had experience with the South Central Farmers' community garden before it was dismantled.

They remember playing in the garden and sharing the harvests of their friends' families. Those experiences were important to them, she told me, and makes their time in even this tiny space more meaningful to them now.

Even the kids that didn't have that experience find meaning in the garden.

They describe it as a kind of quiet oasis with butterflies, according to Gonzalez, because it feels a lot cooler there in the heat of the summer, despite being right next to the street.

"That's both amazing and really sad," I said.

Amazing that such a tiny plot of land can be so transformative and sad that there are so few such plots in the neighborhoods around the Center. The area is bordered by warehouses, industry, truck corridors, and the Metro tracks on Washington, making it feel simultaneously oppressive and isolated.

Gonzalez agreed, saying that when she once asked the youth to recall their favorite trip (as part of an icebreaker activity), almost all of them cited places they described as feeling "free" and "open."

Watching kids outside the gates ogle the progress of the garden as their parents escorted them home, I told Gonzalez it seemed a shame the 50 Parks Initiative hadn't incorporated more of these sorts of ongoing gardening programs to help keep youth engaged and invested in green space. A lot of schools do have garden programs now, but more structured community-oriented gardening programs for families could do wonders for the physical and emotional well-being of the large numbers of youth whose parents keep them locked inside their homes in the hopes of keeping them safe. And, it would benefit the community and city in the long run.

I wasn't the only one that thought so.

We need more programs like this, Don Bernardo had told me earlier. It is important to me that we teach the youth about the value of the environment and to love and care for the earth.

"De ahí comemos." (It feeds/nourishes us)

The worms workshop. The boy who was so excited about worms is in the center in the blue shirt (photo: courtesy AFSC)

**If you'd like to see the garden in action, stop by the All Peoples Community Center Monday afternoon. In celebration of their fruitful first year, parents will be helping the Center's kids harvest greens from the garden and then use the greens to make sandwiches. For more information about AFSC and their work, please click here.

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