How Good Does Your Garden Grow?

Harvesting The Assets in the Alger Heights Neighborhood

What does Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) look like in the Alger Heights community?  This is a question I have been throwing around in my head ever since my wife and I moved back into the neighborhood about a year ago.  The Alger Heights is a neighborhood with resources and possibilities.  It is also a community with a strong core of middle to upper-middle class people eager to see change.  I would boldly say that ABCD in the Alger Heights neighborhood is not as provocative as something in a more inner-city or “rougher” neighborhood.  However, I would also like to say that ABCD is needed everywhere in our communities no matter the racial make up or socio-economic status.  ABCD is about linking, partnering, relationship building, and discovering.  It does not matter whether your doing this in East Grand Rapids, Marne, Muskegon, or in the heart-side neighborhood….it is all the same!

With that said, let us go back to the question already posed. What does ABCD look like in the Alger Heights community?  One thing was very clear when I moved back from Muskegon to Grand Rapids.  First, the neighborhoods were vastly different.  I went from a mostly lower-economic and racially diverse neighborhood to a neighborhood that was wealthier and for the most part was pretty homogenous in terms of its ethnic make up.  Second, people in the McLaughlin neighborhood of Muskegon were very willing to help at any time of the day because most of them were either unemployed or collecting disability.  They were accessible and hungry to do things in their neighborhood.  In the Alger Heights, neighbors are willing to do things but they are busier.  They have other activities that take place at all hours of the day leaving very little time and energy to plug in new things.  Time management In Grand Rapids is very different than it is up in Muskegon.

It became apparent that we needed to do a lot of listening to our neighbors to hear their stories and seek out their dreams and goals for the community.  Something had to be discovered amongst my fellow residents that struck a cord in their hearts, something that they wanted to see change.  One such thing that kept coming up in conversations was that  we no longer have a local grocery store.  It was something that deeply affected all of us in this neighborhood.  Many people talked about how they missed the grocery store and produce section.  Someone had mentioned at a Alger Heights Business Association meeting that we should start a community garden.  And from that point on, we have gained great momentum.

From a cold February evening to now summer weather in June, we as a garden club have come a long way! Over the past three months a group of neighbors, business owners, and church members have been meeting to discuss the possibility of having a community garden in our neighborhood. What has transpired from our discussions is now a thriving community garden that boasts 68 plots with 115 members!

We had to keep the purpose clear though.  In my Muskegon context it was interesting to see neighbors realize the potential of creating a community garden or gathering space because they had been told that they could not do this or that they needed money for it.  It was something that was hard for them to dream about because they had never had anything like it before.  Within the Alger Heights community, posing the idea of having a community garden sounded good to people but something that they also had not seen before.  We wanted to get people on board that wanted to see this as more than just gardening but as something that allowed people to connect with one another.  We did not want to offer a service to the neighborhood but with our group of ABCD believers….offer an opportunity to grow together in gardening and in relationship building.

It has been a blessing and a privilege to work, grow, and partner with the community and the local churches in this wonderful community nurturing opportunity.  Our garden club constructed its mission statement to reflect our hopes and dreams for our neighborhood.

Mission Statement:

Alger Heights Community Garden Club is a club made up of neighbors, local businesses, and churches in the hopes that we will build community while beautifying our neighborhood and growing produce to share, sell, or support our friends and local non-profits.  We are a body of people that want to create and build community capacity and relationships in the context of a community garden by which we strengthen ties and awareness of community felt needs and desires.

We could not have gotten where we are today without a emphasis on relationship building and communication.  These were strong skills that I had sharpened up in Muskegon but then was able to take and transplant here in the Alger Heights.  Before we as a body of people can come together to work, we need to be able to respect, trust, love, and learn from each other.  This meant a series of meetings every week to plan and just to hang out to get to know everyone.  We have continued these meetings at my house in which we have small potlucks every Tuesday night.

The garden club has enabled people to connect and network in many ways that might not have been possible were it not for the community garden.  What has been a blessing to see is how people have used their gifts, time, and resources to make this garden club a reality.  Here are some of their stories.

Alger Heights All-Star: Alan Arkema
I met Alan at the beginning of my internship at Seymour CRC.  He is a retired pastor that still does some pastoral visits to some of our shut ins in the congregation.  Alan joined our community garden project and soon took to work helping those who did not have much gardening experience.  When it comes to vegetables and gardening, Alan is a good resource to have!  For someone who is retired, Alan does not act like he is.  He has helped install our garden sign, brought his personal branch chipper from home to cut down branches, and also help build our compost pile! We are blessed to have Alan Arkema in our garden club and thankful for his willingness to serve.

Rough and Tumble Gardener: Randy Pritchard
If you saw Randy drive down your street on his Harley Davidson motorcycle you might become a bit frightened.  He is a tall man with big muscles and tattoos everywhere. He can seem intimidating but when you meet him and get to know him you find a man committed to the Lord and to his community.  Randy has used his time and his pick up truck to seek out donations for bark chips and for delivering the necessary things to our garden club.  He and his wife Gail have been long standing residents of the Alger Heights and are glad to see neighbors coming together to work.  Randy is always willing to let us use his pick up truck for the needs we might have.

Artistic Flair: Simone Gibson
Simone was eager to pitch in and use her talents of art and design to decorate and paint the sign that was made by a local congregant at Seymour CRC.  Our sign is a big wooden sign with a corkboard on the front for those wishing to post updates, rules for the garden, or other community happenings. Simone along with a few other garden members are working to paint the sign and make a mural on the back reflecting key points to our mission statement and highlight the beauty of gardening.

I could go on and on listing stories of those who have helped and used their gifts and knowledge to make this idea into a reality.  This is the beauty of ABCD.  It is about seeking out the gifts and potential in the neighborhood and then allowing opportunities for those with the skills, abilities, ideas, and dreams to use them in ways to strengthen and grow the neighborhood into a better place to live.  We have come a long way since our meetings in February but we can now say when asked: “How good does your garden grow?” Very well, Thank you!

Josh Holwerda

Josh Holwerda grew up in the Alger Heights Grand Rapids neighborhood.  Following college, he completed two years of community development work as a CRWRC sponsored Americorps Member in Muskegon Michigan.  Josh is now at Calvin Seminary, again living in the Alger Heights neighborhood, and interning at Seymour CRC.  The story below reflects just a part of the long arc of God’s goodness in his still young  life.

Visit Seymour CRC’s website by clicking here.

Visit Volunteers in Service’s website by clicking here.

The Redemption of the Social Canvas of Hunting Park

The Hunting Park Community Garden Mural Project will overlook the Hunting Park Community Garden, a collaborative effort of many neighborhood residents, associations, and organizations over the last two years which has transformed a vacant, trash-strewn lot into a space for gardening and social interaction.  The Mural Project will be led by Ayuda Community Center and will be our 4th work of public art created to beautify our neighborhood.  The project begins on April 26th with a completion date of June 14, 2008.

The Mural Project is the result of 18 months of collaboration between staff members at Ayuda and community residents who form the Friends of Hunting Park Community Garden.  For this project, we will also partner with Youth Build Charter School which enables students ages 16-24 to work toward their GED or High School Diploma while receiving job training and engaging in community service.  The mural will be painted on 12 Alucabest panels (exterior grade aluminum signboard) over the span of three Saturday Workshops and the finished product will be installed on the east wall of a row home facing the community garden.  In addition to creating beautiful art for public display, the Hunting Park Community Garden Mural Project will educate participants on the benefits of gardening for individuals and communities.

Students from Youth Build and young leaders from our neighborhood will lead approximately 40 community residents as they contribute to the painting of the mural.  During this time, architect Juliet Lee will make a 30 minute presentation from her 2005 ArchVoices award winning essay entitled “The Value of Architecture and Design as an Issue of Social Justice.”  Then the co-founders of the Hunting Park Community Garden, Jeff Manson and Andy Nolan, will give information about the history the Garden, its impact on our community, and how community residents can be involved.

A key word in the mission statement of Ayuda Community Center is “transformed.”  The community beautification projects completed by Ayuda accomplish this goal more visibly than any other activity that we engage in.  The entire community of Hunting Park can see the tangible transformation of our neighborhood as we work together to complete and install these public works of art.  Furthermore, a deeper goal of social transformation is being accomplished below the surface as neighbors work together strengthening the relational fabric of the community.  Indeed, the redemption of the social canvas is a parallel aspect of working together on a physical one.

Since the completion of our mosaic project neighborhood residents and members of the Friends of Hunting Park Community Garden have enthusiastically inquired when the next art project will be.  This previous art installation at the site of the garden generated momentum to do more creative work together as a community and fostered a strong sense of community pride among the participants.  These results have propelled community residents toward this Mural Project and Ayuda is proud to facilitate the process.  Our community, which is often publicized for acts of violence, drug related behavior, and urban poverty, longs to spend energy toward efforts that have a positive effect on our environment and attract attention to our community for good things.

By Michaelanne Harriman
Community Arts Director, Ayuda Community Center

Bold Steps for Neighborhood Schools

This is a story about Walker Moore’s passion to engage the church and the community in affecting the city of Waco in a positive way.  Walker Moore is originally from Tulsa Oklahoma.  He came to Waco to study at Baylor University.  Like most young men that go to college, he met his wife and the rest is history.  He works in the city of Waco for the Waco CDC.  CRWC is developing an exploratory relationship with the CDC to help them build the capacity of community associations in the city.  I have been working with Walker for less than a year.  Walker is meticulous and committed to this work.  The residents on the other hand have heard it all before and wonder what can change.  So when I got the last report from Walker it was a joy to read and thought this is as story of how one man inspired by God can get involved in bring transformation.  His story was on their CDC newsletter and it gives you indicators that transformation is taking place.


Last year community members met with the principals of our two neighborhood schools, Brook Avenue Elementary and West Avenue Elementary, to share and discuss their dreams about the future. One of our biggest dreams was that parents would become more fully engaged in their child’s learning experience. It has been exciting to see this dream become reality as both schools are now implementing plans to increase parental involvement.

Brook Avenue Elementary kick off event was a Family Friendly Learning Walk. On most Learning Walks, school personnel walk through classrooms to observe classroom management, teaching strategies, and whether or not students are actually learning. Principal Jessica Hicks of Brook Avenue Elementary took the bold step to work with Parents For Public Schools and Waco Community Development to invite parents to February’s Learning Walk. This was an especially bold step because many of the invited parents had a less than amiable relationship with the school and now, these parents were being invited into the classrooms to provide feedback. Because of the school’s initiative, parents received a better understanding of the educational process. The parents who attended the Learning Walk were honored that Mrs. Hicks actually took action due to their feedback. For Brook Avenue Elementary, it was a great opportunity to hear from parents on ways to better educate the students. In light of this success, Brook Avenue Elementary decided to continue inviting parents to Learning Walks. The parents are now excited as well as interested in becoming more involved in the educational process. Brook Avenue Elementary’s bold step has started turning what was once a dream into reality.

West Avenue Elementary recognized that student’s parents were not receiving enough positive comments about their children. They realized that far too often, the parents only hear from the school when their child is in trouble and rarely about anything positive. In order to correct this, West Avenue Elementary took the initiative to compile a list of positive attributes for some of the most challenging students. Then West Avenue Elementary worked with Waco Community Development to recruit two volunteer parents/guardians that would contact parents of West Avenue Elementary students. The volunteers would relate to the parents the positive things their child is doing in school. Andreia Foster, West Avenue Elementary’s principal, realized that these phone calls were crucial to strengthening the school’s relationship with parents. Principal Foster was also willing to take the necessary steps to turn this dream into reality.

Our neighborhood is fortunate to have Brook Avenue Elementary and West Avenue Elementary educating our children, and we look forward to the opportunity to continue working with these schools as we turn dreams into reality.

Michigan Community Takes Another Cohesive Step

This spring, one of our partners in West Michigan decided to merge with another community nonprofit.  Sacred Suds, and Bethany Housing Ministries, both operating within the McLaughlin neighborhood of Muskegon, Michigan, had been working together for many years.  The likely community benefit beyond those efficiencies associated with combined operations seems substantial: a stronger McLaughlin neighborhood resulting from a highly intentional strategy of engaging neighborhood partners in both the process of forming the new entity, and inviting their participation as board members in the new body.

Part of the process of engaging the McLaughlin neighborhood in the process of forming the new body, was a Saturday morning gathering of some 40 neighborhood stakeholders to discuss neighborhood issues and give input on the organizational merger.  Alongside residents from the neighborhood, there were representatives from the neighborhood association, the local elementary school, the police department, the county health department, several local churches, and the two merging nonprofits.  The gathered group was quite varied, reflecting both the racial and religious diversity of the neighborhood.  Volunteers In Service (CRWRC / NAMT West Michigan partner) had the opportunity and pleasure of facilitating the community input meeting.

Following the community input meeting, the new organization adopted the new name, mission statement, and board reflecting its continuing commitment to strengthening the fabric of the McLaughlin neighborhood.

As a result of their inviting the community into their formation process, the new organization has broadened its neighborhood mission, and board representation.  As such, the new organization (Community enCompass) is now poised to seek the good of the neighborhood on a much higher level of connectedness, and involvement of community organizational partners and residents.


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