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Natural Awakenings North Central New Jersey

Kean University Volunteers Cultivate Inner-City Gardens and Community Pride : Be The Change NJ is changing the landscape for peace, nutrition, and sense of community one garden at a time.

Mar 06, 2016 03:37PM ● By Allison Vorel

Be The Change NJ, a community action group at Kean University with nearly 900 members made up of students, alumni, and community partners, organizes community service projects and addresses issues of social justice, food justice, and human rights at the local, state, national and global levels. Dr. Norma Bowe, a Kean professor and faculty advisor to Be The Change, with her team of volunteers, take vacant inner-city lots in Newark, Irvington, and East Orange and transform them into gardens, playgrounds, and meeting places. Twelve gardens have been established in Newark, a city whose crime rate is five times the national average and whose municipal spending on parks and recreation is second to last.

“We like to call them pocket parks,” says Dr. Bowe. “These pocket parks are improving the neighborhoods by bringing both adults and children together in a safe, beautiful haven.  In essence, these gardens are allowing residents to take back their neighborhood and help lower the crime rate.”

Transformation in a Day

The transformation of a vacant lot into a beautiful community-gathering place is completed in virtually one day. One garden in Newark was completed in 100-degree heat with the help of more than 100 volunteers made up of students, alumni, and community partners. “It is very important for residents to see the transformation that can take place in one day,” says Dr. Bowe.  

Plywood, paint brushes, garbage bags, rocks, organic soil, organic seeds, and volunteer trucks paint the landscape on the day of transformation. Generous patrons have even donated full wooden play sets while others have graciously donated their time painting murals in the gardens. One neighborhood requested an outdoor classroom theme, so their garden features a wall-sized chalkboard along with a desk area for a teacher and benches for children.

Two weeks after one garden was established, Dr. Bowe visited to find a children’s birthday party in full swing, complete with colorful balloons and a fired-up grill offering hamburgers and hotdogs. For Dr. Bowe, this garden was already fulfilling the Be The Change goals of a safe haven where sense of community thrives.

Vertical Peace Gardens

These communal gardens also address the shortage of good, wholesome, fresh produce in the area. “Newark is virtually a food desert with only five supermarkets to feed 300,000 people,” says Dr. Bowe. The corner grocery stores and bodegas supply only processed, high-sodium food items with little nutritional value. To alleviate that drought of healthy food choices in places where space is at a premium, Be The Change has begun an innovative program of Vertical Peace Gardens, vegetable gardens planted in towers in two-by-five-foot areas that yield 41 plants.  As Joe Lentini, a graduate student involved with the Vertical Peace Gardens, says, “It is awesome to see kids eating fresh tomatoes and peppers for the first time. Last year’s gardens yielded 237 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

 Once the organization establishes a Vertical Peace Garden, it is easily able to recruit neighborhood residents to maintain the gardens because community members have a personal investment in the fruits of their labor.  Be The Change is in the process of patenting the Vertical Peace Garden design and making it portable, allowing indoor cultivation during colder months. Last March, the group was selected to exhibit its Vertical Garden project at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University Meeting in Florida.

Changing Spaces and Minds

When Be The Change completes a project, the physical space is never the same, and the emotional impact is one of hope, love, peace, and inspiration, delivered throughout the year. In September, one garden gives 25 neighborhood kids a new backpack full of school supplies with a note from a Kean University student saying, “See you in college!” There is pumpkin painting in the fall, fun Karaoke sing-along nights, and a visit from Santa Claus in December.

Other community initiatives involve feeding people directly, through bagged lunches. Amanda Calvi, a recent Kean graduate and member of Be The Change, describes the weekly scene in the lobby of Hennings Hall at the university: “Everyone gathers late afternoon. Each person gets assigned to the peanut butter station, jelly station, brown bag station, or snack station. In twenty minutes, all 125 lunch bags are complete and a small group of us set out to the train station where it takes us about fifteen minutes to distribute.” During this year’s record-breaking snowstorm, the volunteers delivered pizza to the train station.

“It’s all positive change,” says Dr. Bowe, with a smile. “Whether planting a garden, painting a mural, installing a play set, delivering bagged lunches, and even delivering twelve boxed pizzas in a snowstorm. It’s all good!”

If you would like to become a member of the Be The Change team, contact Dr. Norma Bowe at [email protected]

Allison is a Northern New Jersey based freelance writer and Certified Healing Touch Practitioner (CHTP) in private practice. She also gives the gift of Healing Touch at Carol Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Hospital and Mrs. Wilsons, a halfway house in Morristown. Allison educates and practices Healing Touch with a variety of health and wellness groups including Corporate Wellness Programs. Contact Allison at [email protected]

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