Fresh Starts Community Garden

Fresh Starts Community Garden - Before pictureOnce upon a time, in the city of St Louis, MO, there was a certain vacant city lot, and on it was nothing but tall grass and equally tall weeds. It was also a dumping place for plenty of trash, in all forms from various places and people. So one lady, by the name of Rosie Willis, decided something positive should be done about that city lot – a blight on the whole area.

A garden! That would create beauty as well as a great source for fresh, organic vegetables for the surrounding neighborhood residents. This was in the year of our Lord 2009. So what did Rosie do? Well, first she asked her neighbors if they would like a vegetable garden on the lot, where all the trash, mean weeds and grass was growing. Everyone was thrilled about such an idea! So, as spokesperson for her neighbors, Rosie went to City Hall. There, she checked all the records are kept on local land and buildings, and discovered that the land belonged to the Comptrollers Office. The director was eager to lease the land to Rosie’s community group for only $1.00 dollar for five years!!

Fresh Starts Community Garden fall work day

Hallelujah, hallelujah! The land was theirs, and Rosie and her neighbors could start their garden. But how???

Rosie and her neighbors didn’t have money to buy the things they needed as start up gardeners. But that didn’t stop Rosie. She sent letters to all of the surrounding churches. Unlike most communities, Rosie’s had an abundance of churches nearby. So, thinking that she would surely get help from her neighborhood churches, she contacted each pastor of every church (about 20 or more) and asked for $1 dollar. To strengthen her case, she showed proof that the community group was operating with a 501(c)3, under the  umbrella of the Neighborhood Organization at that time. In the end, not one church responded to their request for help, not even the churches located on the same city block as the garden.

Determined to succeed, Rosie turned next to their city Alderwoman, Marlene Davis, for financial help. After many late night emails, early morning emails and phone calls from Rosie to the Alderwoman, the answer was still “we don’t have any money right now, but we’ll work on it.” So Rosie kept at it. She and her neighbors were challenged with so many obstacles and stumbling blocks while starting their garden: no money, no tools, no seeds, no lumber for raised beds, and even worse – no water. The community had to run water from across the street to garden the few plants they had. Any “no” you can think of, Rosie and her neighbors heard it.

One day, Rosie heard about a small grant being offered by Operation Bright Side (OBS). She worked with Mary Lou Green (of OBS) to apply, and they got the grant! Now, the garden could really get started, and it did! Rosie and her neighbors purchased gardening tools and flower bulbs to start beautifying the space. A local lumber company in the neighborhood agreed to sell them $435 dollars worth of lumber for $130, and even when the gardeners couldn’t pay the bill, he brought the lumber anyway, cut and ready to build 19 raised garden beds! And through it all, Rosie kept emailing her Alderwoman, keeping her up to date on the obstacles and successes of the neighborhood gardeners. The Alderwoman listened, and rewarded their persistence by approving funding not only for the one lot Rosie and her neighbors had begun gardening on, but also to expand the space onto another six lots on the same block!

Rosie & friends at Fresh Starts Community Garden in 2016

Over time, Rosie and her neighbors have worked hard and worked magic in their new garden: The Fresh Starts Community Garden. They transformed it from a wasteland of trash, weeds, tall grasses and drug needles to being awarded the Best Community Hang-Out Garden by Gateway Greening. Today, they are blessed with great local support and even volunteer help from all over the country. Next year, they’ll celebrate the gardens 9th birthday! Where has the time gone?

Story by Rosie Willis – Fresh Starts Community Garden Leader