RINCON — United Way of the Coastal Empire recently helped establish a gift that will keep on giving if tended to properly.
On June 26, a group of United Way volunteers descended on Zion Lutheran Church to work in a community garden. The project at 121 Noel C. Conway Road in Guyton was part of United Way’s annual Day of Action.
“Zion Lutheran Church already had the community garden there,” said Elizabeth Waters, United Way’s area director in Effingham County. “They had tried to get it off the ground and it just wasn’t too terribly successful.”
The purpose of a community garden is to bolster access to fresh food. It jibes perfectly with United Way’s mission to improve lives by mobilizing the power of communities around the world to advance the common good.
That’s why Waters was grateful to learn that Zion Lutheran Church was a step ahead.
Waters said, “Our VISTA volunteer through United Way was like, ‘I am interested in possibly doing a community garden in Chatham County because it is something that is not a one-day event. It’s something that you can serve the community afterward — sustainability. Do you think that is something that we could do in each of the counties (that United Way of the Coastal Empire serves)?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Let me see. Let’s put out some feelers.’ And that’s when I sent out an e-mail and Pastor Ben (Mandrick) reached out to me and said, ‘Listen. We already have a community garden but we’d love to have you come out and help us with it.’”
The church had made land available for planting but few people were growing anything, Waters said.
“Originally, they tried to do it where the church grew the food and the community just came and picked it, and took it,” Waters said, “but nobody would come and pick, and take so the food was going to waste. Then they switched their methods so families could have a plot and grow there own family garden there and manage and maintain it, and get the fruits from their labor.
“They still have like two or three of those in the space right now. The other half of it that was already plowed and fenced in was unplanted so we came in.”
United Way volunteers initially intended to plant potatoes and corn. They were warned by University of Georgia Extension Agent Blake Carter that it is too late to sow potatoes, however.
“Long story short, last month we planted tomato plants and we’ve got another team going out July 31 that will plant sweet corn,” Waters said. “Our Young Leaders Society, through United Way, that is going to be one of their volunteer projects.”
Waters had a few collaborative meetings about the community garden in an effort to add partners.
“Obviously, this can grow,” she said. “It’s an awesome idea and ought to be done in a bunch of places. Someone shared something with me about a community garden in Atlanta. It’s massive. It’s got bee hives and this and that. It’s amazing.
“The potential (at Zion Lutheran Church) is out there but it’s got to have the leadership and the community partners, and buy-in throughout the year.”
Waters made it clear that United Way doesn’t intend to run the community garden.
“I’m not a farmer,” she said. “We need community partners to come together to take the lead. That might be having enough so that each organization or group is responsible for a month or a year.
“I don’t know what that would look like.”
Waters would like to see Boys Scouts, FFA members, church groups and pre-K students get involved.
“We invested in the community garden as a way to drum up the advertisement of it,” she said. “I think one of the reasons that it failed previously is because it had no advertising other than (the Zion Lutheran Church) Facebook page. Nobody knows about it so we need to get the word out so that the community knows what is going on.”
United Way volunteers increased the garden’s visibility by applying fresh paint to a sign that marks it.
“It seems like a good location because it is an area of the county that does not have that many services,” Waters said.
The area director hopes other area churches will consider starting gardens, too.
“I don’t want this to be something that United Way invested in and have it fall apart in three months,” she said. “I want it to grow, sustain and continue year round, but I can’t be the leader.”
People interested in assisting with the Zion Lutheran Church garden or starting a new one are encouraged to call Waters at 912-826-5897 or email email@example.com.