MADISONVILLE – A 15-year vision by a Texas AgriLife Extension Service employee is reaching fruition in the form of the Restoration Community Gardens, thanks to the generosity and hard work of hundreds of youth and adults in a small East Texas town.
“I’ve had this vision of creating a sort of community garden and agricultural park for kids for about 15 years,” said Leslie Lazenby, 4-H program assistant at the AgriLife Extension office for Madison County, Madisonville. “I was beginning to think that if it happened at all, it would just be a small garden and maybe a barn that I’d put in my own back yard.”
Lazenby said she had given up hope for a larger effort when she was turned down for a grant that would involve building a community garden on a 6.5 acre site close to the AgriLife Extension office. The site was the grounds of a former elementary school, and the land had been unused for several years, so the county was considering putting the property up for sale.
The day after she was turned down for her grant, however, Rev. Debbie Daigle of nearby Holy Innocents Episcopal Church came to Lazenby’s office. Daigle had said she had her own similar vision – serving area youth and feeding the underprivileged in the community and teaching them to feed themselves.
“For a while, the Lord had been pulling on my heart to work with underprivileged children and others through planting, gardening and other agricultural activities, but I’m a city girl and didn’t know too much about any of that,” Daigle said. “So a friend of mine suggested I talk to Leslie at the AgriLife Extension office. We talked and I soon realized her vision and mine were closely in line — we both wanted to work with kids and help feed the less fortunate.”
Daigle, who had recently received $2,000 in discretionary funds, decided on the spot that she would donate the entire amount toward building a community garden on the site Lazenby had identified, pending approval from county officials.
“It was wonderful,” Lazenby said. “I thought about a scripture verse (Haggai 2:19) that says: ‘Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit. From this day on, I will bless you.’”
Because Daigle’s congregation was relatively small and comprised mainly of older members, and since funds were limited, it was necessary to find others willing to volunteer their time, talents and labor toward building the garden and other structures and facilities in the site.
Word went out and help came by the hundreds – including 4-H youth members and adult leaders, participants in the community’s House of Hope program, the Madisonville Christian Fellowship, Living Truth Church, local business people and numerous caring individuals.
“Our first efforts toward building the community garden were last fall as part of the One Day 4-H, the annual statewide community service initiative by Texas 4-H,” Lazenby said. “More than 100 4-H adult leaders and club members came to help us clean up our property, plant flowerbeds and pots, paint murals, and restore some life to the existing building. The community started to take notice and wonder what we were up to over here.”
This spring, the project coordinated a community ‘Planting Day’ during which seed potatoes were planted. We had another 100 kids show up to build and fill raised beds with plants and seeds. It was Rev. Daigle’s contribution that allowed us to buy the materials needed, and we were elated with the way the young people in community got behind the project.”
“We had more than 100 people come, mostly underprivileged kids and parents from a low-income apartment area in the neighborhood.” Daigle said. “The kids had a great time playing in the dirt and planting. It was a lot of fun for them – and their parents. Some of these families didn’t have electricity or running water in their homes, but everyone was anxious to help.”
Today, the garden has 24 raised beds of okra, green beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and other vegetables, she noted. In another section of the site is an orchard, which Madison County AgriLife Extension agent Billy Zanolini was instrumental in laying out and fencing. Produce from the orchard will include pears, pomegranates, figs, peaches, plums and other fruits for the community feeding effort.
But fruits and vegetables are only part of this “feed the community” vision.
“One of my parishoners said they give away culled chickens that had been used for show and competition at the county fair,” Daigle said. “So I talked to the fair board about getting these chickens, and they were very interested. I acquired about 200 chickens and found some people willing to process them. Then someone else donated a pig and another person donated the processing for that pig. Then someone donated half a steer. We even had some emus and rabbits donated. All of this went into our neighborhood feeding program.”
Much of the hands-on work being done related to the project has been contributed by House of Hope, a faith-based program which provides free community service as part of its mission and outreach.
Among other efforts, House of Hope volunteers have cleaned the former school’s gutters, put in two cisterns to catch rainwater and irrigation lines for the garden, and provided much of the labor toward building flower beds and installing an aquaponics system designed by John Musser of Aquaponics and Earth in DeSoto.
“House of Hope program participants are people trying to make a fresh start. They commit to staying in my program for a full year and agree to provide unpaid community service,” said House of Hope Church minister Brad Brock. “With this new Restoration Community Garden project, they get a chance to contribute to the community through volunteering their time and skills — planting the seeds for their own future.”
Brock said he learned of the community garden project from Lazenby, who had attended his church services at House of Hope and become involved in their music ministry.
“I saw how the project would be of benefit to the people in our program, as well as the community as a whole,” he said.
Brock said House of Hope has been providing three or four men a week to the project for several months and that it plans to continue its support for as long as needed.
“We have people with different talents, such as plumbers, carpenters, sheet metal workers and electricians,” he said. “These talents have come in very handy for restoring the school buildings and building the garden and other facilities. People in our program come from all walks of life, and many are from urban areas and have never seen a garden. But now they’re literally seeing the fruits of their labor growing in the garden they helped build.”
Involving young people in the community has been one of the top goals of the project, and the Madisonville Christian Fellowship has been indispensable in that effort, Lazenby said.
“Most of what we’re doing is focused on feeding the kids and educating them about growing their own food, knowing where their food comes from, proper nutrition, getting some exercise and giving back to the community,” she said.
Joshua Schwarz, youth pastor at Madisonville Christian Fellowship, said young people in the community have responded overwhelmingly to the project and look forward to being involved in it.
“The kids love to plant and to work in the dirt,” Schwarz said. “It’s really nice to see them interested in planting and growing, which has become a sort of lost passion. We always look for ways to involve the kids and for them to learn and have fun as part of the project, which is growing into an agricultural community center.”
He said some of the project activities the young people enjoy most are tending the raised beds, growing their own vegetables and learning about the aquaponics system that was built on the grounds of the AgriLife Extension office.
“The tilapia we are growing in the aquaculture area of the system produce wastewater that is then filtered and the remaining nutrients are used to feed the plants. It’s a small, self-contained ecosystem, and the kids think it’s fascinating.”
Schwarz said he is also excited about other ideas under discussion or being implemented to benefit youth. He said kids and their families will benefit from proposed instruction on growing food, proper nutrition, limited-space gardening and pruning and tending fruit trees.
“We’ve also been discussing an outreach program to get limited-resource and at-risk kids involved in 4-H animal projects as part of this overall project effort,” said Schwarz, who is a nationally certified archery instructor and part of the 4-H archer program. “There are at least 125 youth within walking distance of apartments who could become involved in gardening or animal projects. This also provides an opportunity for them to learn about 4-H and to bring a more diverse audience into that program.”
Lazenby added that youth from the Living Truth Church and youth and adults from other churches of different denominations throughout the community also have provided labor, materials or other support for the project.
“Community and religious leaders, like John Hardy, who has been a great AgriLife Extension supporter, Reverend Daigle, Josh Schwarz, Brad Brock, Pastor Lon McVeigh, Father Mike from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and others have all been very supportive of this project,” she said.
Additional programs and activities related to the Restoration Community Garden project continue to come from the community and members of its board of directors, which includes Lazenby, Daigle, Schwarz, a local commercial farmer, an organic farmer, a 4-H program adult leader and gardener, a local businessman and other community leaders. The board meets weekly to discuss current and future plans and assess project progress.
Along with community donations and contributions, additional ongoing monthly financial support for the project has been committed by Daigle’s son, a successful businessman.
“The board is currently looking into the possibility of building a kitchen and finding someone to provide cooking instruction,” Daigle said. “We’re also planning instruction on canning and preserving foods, as well as possibly showing people how to make their own soap and providing instruction on proper hygiene.”
Lazenby said another project plan in the works is to plant seeds for a pumpkin patch that would be ready for harvest in the fall.
“We’ll be working with people from Fort Worth involved in Mission Madisonville, which comes annually to minister to kids in the community,” she said. “We’ve set aside one acre to plant watermelons, cantaloupes and pumpkins. The pumpkins will become a pumpkin patch that will be ready for harvest for decoration in the fall.”
Lazenby added that Hailey Haberman, a summer intern at the AgriLife Extension office, would be involved in designing children’s summer programs and other efforts relating to the project.
“Right now, we’re working on a summer weekend backpack program where kids will receive backpacks filled with produce form the gardens and easy to prepare food, as well as participate in some arts and crafts activities and a two-hour fun and educational Extension program,” Lazenby said. “We’re keeping most of what we do focused on the kids.”
Lazenby said the project has been a genuine group effort and would not have been possible without a shared vision and the support of the entire community.
“This whole project is truly a blessing and I’m glad to be a part of it,” she said. “So many people have already been so generous and helpful, and it’s great to see that, as it develops, even more people want to be involved. It’s amazing to see what can happen when people work together.”