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Second Chances

A Community Garden Gives New Life to Recovering Addicts and Homeless Volunteers

December 21, 2003|Susan Heeger

Del Vaughn Walker's new life started with a row of 3-inch fava bean sprouts. "In three months, my beans were 5 feet tall," says Walker, a former volunteer at the Solano Canyon Community Garden. Walker had spent the previous 20 years running the streets and living for drugs, which finally landed him in jail and then a facility for recovering addicts in downtown L.A. There he was given a chance to do something he'd never done before--volunteer--and in a most unlikely place, a garden. "To plant something and watch it grow was seeing life renew itself with my help,'' he says.

The garden sits on a hill near Dodger Stadium, sharing space with the Urban Farm and Orchard project. A scant year after his first planting, Walker became the field supervisor, overseeing other homeless and formerly homeless volunteers, some in recovery, all looking for a second chance.

Like other L.A. community gardens, this one aims to give people the chance to grow their own food. The Solano Canyon project has broadened its scope under founder Al Renner, an activist for inner-city farming. In 1998, having helped organize a community garden in Echo Park, Renner asked the city's Department of Recreation and Parks if he could do the same on a vacant slope above the 110 Freeway. A school had stood there until 1936, but ever since, the lot had been bare and weed-choked and deeply scarred by winter rains, which washed its soil onto local roads.

Not only did the city hand Renner the land, it gave him five acres, which was more than he had bargained for. About the same time, Renner was hired to expand the garden program at Dome Village, a downtown homeless shelter.

"I was looking for land and someone to run this project," says Ronda Flanzbaum, Dome's program director. "Along comes Al, this visionary garden guru, and he already had the land."

Soon, busloads of Dome Villagers, and volunteers from the nearby Mary Lind Foundation, a recovery center, were coming to Solano Canyon to help the locals dig, plant, water and tend an assortment of edibles in 30-some beds on the lower hill. And before long, Renner and Flanzbaum had won an Environment Protection Agency grant to build terraces, shore up the eroding slope, create transitional jobs for volunteers and develop a business that would support the whole undertaking.

With the launch on the upper hillside of the Urban Farm and Orchard, which planted fruit trees and rows of beans, cantaloupes and tomatoes, more volunteers arrived. About the time of the farm's debut four years ago, the Dodgers, the city of L.A., the L.A. Conservation Corps., local nurseries and Caltrans all offered money, plants or extra labor to aid in brush-clearing and tree-planting. Actress Bette Midler, long a champion of New York's community gardens, donated $15,000 for fences and irrigation. Silver Lake landscape architect Glen Dake helped plot the overall farm layout. Artist Didier Guedj contributed tiled benches and a mosaic mural. And from Pasadena to Malibu, adult and school-age volunteers have participated in Saturday workdays, scheduled weekly at 10 a.m.

"This is why we've been successful," Flanzbaum says. "People who don't usually interact come together here, and when you work alongside a recovering or homeless person--who may be a lawyer or hold a PhD--your differences vanish. You see how much you have in common." That boosts the confidence of those outside the social web, adds Renner.

Initially, a steady income of grant funds from the EPA helped. The funds have since run out, and today, Renner acts as both manager and field supervisor, and relies heavily on volunteer help.

The farm has begun selling its produce, primarily to the Dodgers, for use in restaurants at the stadium. The Dodgers have also been involved in another of the garden's projects, giving children from the Solano Canyon Elementary School hands-on experience growing edibles, and then turning them into food. "Gardens, community, food, kids, the stadium--it all comes together here," says Robert Moore, the Dodgers' executive chef. Along with others, Moore has taught gardening classes and hosted the students at the stadium's kitchens, where they have made pizza with fresh tomato sauce, and cobbler with freshly picked peaches.

Renner and Flanzbaum are hoping the EPA will renew its grant so they can raise additional funds from public agencies and corporations to expand the program and duplicate it elsewhere. "There are 14,000 vacant lots in L.A., and a lot of people don't have enough to eat," Renner says. What they do have, he believes, is the desire to provide for themselves if given the opportunity. "What we emphasize here is that nothing happens overnight," he says. "Be patient. In the garden and in life, change comes slowly."

Yet, thanks to the garden, Walker, in the space of a year, was able to rent a house, buy a car and reestablish a relationship with his son, JeRon, age 11. "I've been able to show him another side of his father," Walker says.

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