Sprouting Hope at Buddy House

Eye on LSSI, Fall 2011 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

A volunteer helps two little boys pull weeds in the large garden at Buddy House.Walking through rows of vegetables and fruits planted by residents of the Blackhawk Housing Complex, Ruth Fairchild can feel, breathe and see the magic two community gardens have created in the southeast Rockford neighborhood she serves.

The community gardens have given the otherwise bleak landscape color. Those who live in the complex’s apartments have a sense of home and hope that has manifested there, thanks to the garden that's been growing during the last three years.

Fairchild serves as program supervisor for Prisoner and Family Ministry in Rockford, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), providing residents with desperately needed services in a neighborhood beset by poverty. The gardens are the work of people connected to LSSI’s Buddy House, a place where disadvantaged youth and their families — affected by incarceration, job loss and even drug abuse — can find support services and community resources to live better lives.

Danica Hoehn (center), program director of the Urban Initiative: Roots and Wings program of the Angelic Organics Learning Center, teaches children how to weed and care for plants in the Buddy House gardens. Credit: Scott MorganIn the searing heat of a humid July day, Fairchild watches as children from the Rockford Housing Authority’s complex work together to rid the gardens of weeds. The children each take their place in the garden beds, pulling the overgrowth from the earth before them, wiping their sweat as they worked, but never complaining. Some children carried bags; others carried buckets around two gardens totaling about 7,000 square feet on two nearby parcels of land.

“I like to water and get dirty,” says Donovin Lewis, a 7th grader at Rockford Environmental Science Academy. “It gives me something to do, so I’m not out here trying to get in fights all the time.”

His father, Alfred Lewis, 50, is a single father dependent on public aid who is raising Donovin and his sister McKenzie, 12. While Lewis looks for work to support his family and performs community service work to fulfill his obligations, he’s to satisfied know that his children aren’t picking up bad habits in the neighborhood.

“It can get rough,” Alfred says. “I’d rather have them over here at Buddy House, than have them hang out with the bad cats out there.”

Ruth Fairchild, who directs LSSI’s Prisoner and Family Ministry programs in Rockford, helped establish the gardens at Buddy House in 2009. Fairchild says the gardens give the youth at Blackhawk summer jobs and provide nutritious food for cash-strapped families. Credit: Scott Morgan Both of the youth help in the gardens as youth leaders, guided by Fairchild and a representative from Angelic Organics Learning Center. The duo, like other children in the community garden project, tend to the gardens, serve as role models at the housing complex and sell vegetables from the gardens at area farmers markets to make a couple dollars to use for doing something fun with friends.

“This makes them feel like they’re doing something special,” Alfred adds. “It keeps them out of trouble, and hanging around Ruth gives them structure, ‘cause she’s a godly woman.”

Bringing people together in a labor of love

Fairchild doesn’t do the work she does for a paycheck. She does it for the people, she says.

“It’s about the relationships and getting this community to do something positive,” she says, from beneath her large black sunhat.

From left: Blackhawk residents Brian Besper and Angie Williams (left) with LSSI staffmember Janice Carpenter, show off vegetables they’ve grown, including bok choy. Angie and husband Brian, a professional chef, live in an apartment overlooking the garden. Credit: Jo Ann Dollard It’s about the work Buddy House is doing with Angelic Organics Learning Center to teach about nutrition and growing food locally, along with friendships forged in a non-traditional setting. “It’s a labor of love,” Fairchild explains.

“This [garden] puts people together who otherwise would not work together,” Fairchild says. “They’re with their kids, and they end up being good neighbors to each other, which they never would have done if they hadn’t walked out to look at the tomatoes.”

Buddy House, located in a small apartment transformed into a learning and resource center, stirs up positive energies among the families of the urban community.

There’s a reason for that, explains resident Lee Lowe, 49. “It’s about self-worth,” he said. “It’s working together.”

For Lee and dozens of other residents, the garden has become a focal point of the center and their lives during three of the four seasons. Fairchild, who oversees the center, is at the helm of rebirth, growth and stability for many of the children and families served by LSSI.

“They’ve seen it all,” she said, referring to the area’s children who are exposed to parents involved in drugs, prostitution, thefts, sex abuse and incarceration.

Mackenzie Lewis, 10, a Blackhawk Courts resident and youth leader, loves working in the garden. She says, “The garden made people happier … It’s a community garden where everyone comes together.”During the summer months for the last three years, children and adult volunteers have helped to grow the Buddy House gardens into somewhat of a phenomenon, as the otherwise blighted area becomes a center of growth and new life.

Some residents only hear of the good, but others have the extraordinary experience of working with their hands to help others in their community feel empowered and to reap the benefits of home-grown produce. It’s people working with their hands side-by-side that epitomizes progress. That is what the gardens are bringing to the people, says Linda Armstrong, 26, a resident at Blackhawk and mother of two.

“I like taking the onions I watched grow and cooking with them,” she says. “I weed a couple of hours a week, and it’s relaxing. I see the kids weeding, and my neighbors, too.”

The children also have the rare opportunity to sell the produce they’ve grown at community markets in Rockford to benefit Buddy House, with a few dollars to keep for themselves.

“They have the ability to be proud of this and learn to grow on their own,” says Danica Hoehn, program director for Angelic Organics Leaning Center’s Urban Initiative Roots & Wings. “My role is to help them grow as experts and positive citizens.”

On September 22, youth leaders from the garden and other Blackhawk community children will go to The Black Farmers Market at Chicago’s Navy Pier to sell fruits and vegetables with Ruth Fairchild and Buddy House volunteers. It’s an annual trip Buddy House makes to encourage African-American kids to live positive and healthy lifestyles, said Fairchild.

Tamaria Smith, 11, will be on that trip for a second consecutive year. While she can’t remember how much money she made from the sales of the produce she sold, she can remember the feeling it gave her to know she sold vegetables she watched sprout up and grow from seeds.

“It was beautiful,” she says.

Ann Higgins, deputy executive director for programming at the Rockford Housing Authority, which oversees the Blackhawk complex and the homes of more than 2,000 others, says Buddy House is a reminder that everyone needs a hand.

“A little grain of dirt can bring people together, and that amazes me,” she says.

Kristina McKeown, an LSSI AmeriCorps member, listens as Donovan Horton, 10, practices reading aloud in the Buddy House learning room. Buddy House is a resource and activity center for approximately 100 children and their families, many of whom have incarcerated loved ones. Here, kids can get a healthy snack, help with their homework and receive caring attention from the staff and volunteers. Credit: Scott MorganAs a result of its success, Rockford Housing Authority will launch a pilot program in the coming months to offer more to the residents who live in its apartments, including GED classes to physical fitness programs.

Higgins understands the programming residents need and believes LSSI and Buddy House are at the forefront of change as the gardens provide a sense of ownership and humanity to people in need. The gardens are, after all, a place where, to date, more than 100 residents have worked to weed, pick vegetables, plant or water.

“People in [public] housing have the same fears: They fear for their safety, and they fear for their families, but by working in the garden, they do community service and their kids see that,” Higgins says. “If you want to get kids to be in a better place, you have to offer more to them.”

To see an album of photos from the Buddy House garden, please visit www.LSSI.org.

About Buddy House

Located within the Rockford Housing Authority’s (RHA) Blackhawk Housing is Buddy House, a well-utilized center of support for the community’s families, many of whom deal daily with the separation from loved ones due to incarceration.

Donated to Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) by RHA, Buddy House serves as an after-school mecca of activities to help the complex’s children study and stay off the streets. LSSI staff and volunteers, including AmeriCorps volunteers, offer support to motivate both children and adults to live a better life through community involvement and participation in Buddy House programs.

Buddy House is a safe place where children and families can get inspired to break through negative cycles and promote change for members of the community, particularly the youth.

Through partnerships with Beyer Elementary School, Summerdale School and Chicago International Charter School, youth have a means of receiving ongoing educational assistance. Buddy House partners with the Northern Illinois Food Bank and Blackhawk Boys and Girls Club to offer youth healthy snacks, memberships for sports and a free evening meal.