‘There’s so much good here’: Waukegan volunteers prepare community gardens

Armed with gardening tools, gloves, soil and a sense of determination, a group of more than 50 volunteers worked Friday to prepare two community gardens for the growing of flowers and vegetables this summer in Waukegan.

The group of women, children and men from throughout the community and as far away as Michigan pulled weeds, removed dead leaves and carted fresh new soil rich in nutrients to both the Holy Family Food Pantry garden on Lincoln Avenue and 8th Street and the raised garden beds outside the Roberti Community House on 919 8th St.

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“This is the kickoff to our summer programs and gardening,” said Maribeth Roberti, founder of the Roberti Community House.

The home is a center where community families are welcome to participate in programs of yoga, reading and math, preschool readiness, drumming, and good eating habits. That’s where the gardens are truly utilized as the ultimate tools where kids and adults pick up horticultural and nutritional skills.

On Friday, Roberti and the volunteers readied the raised garden beds behind the home.

Officers from the Waukegan Police Department were among the participants getting soil ready for growing cucumbers, lettuce of many kinds, broccoli, chard, a variety of peppers, cabbage, beans and kale, which is used to make smoothies for the children, Roberti said.

Families learn how to use what’s grown in the garden in cooking classes, Roberti said.

Over at the Holy Family Food Pantry garden, volunteers worked carefully around tulips of colors in bright yellow, red and orange so as to not disturb them when they pulled weeds from the soil around them.

That garden will grow food for the pantry, as well as be used as a space where children can get their hands dirty, said volunteer Sonia Sanchez.

Each Tuesday starting the second week in June, volunteers will be out from 10 a.m. to noon making arts and crafts with children while their parents are in the food pantry choosing their food items.

Sanchez said kids who visit regularly look forward to watering the vegetables and can’t wait to take them home.

“They have a lot of fun in the dirt, and they’re interested in learning how the vegetables grow,” Sanchez said.

During Friday’s garden spring cleaning efforts, Kim Isaacson was at hand providing tips on how to weed the gardens. The University of Illinois Extension horticulturalist works closely with the Roberti Community House each summer.

Friday was also the conclusion of a week-long stay for a group of students from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. The young adults volunteered their labor at the Roberti Community House while learning about urban farming.

Emma Steele, a 19-year-old junior at Grand Valley, said it was sad to be nearing the end of her time in Waukegan.

“I learned about a lot of skills on seeding and bedding. I loved that it’s been instant gratification. You look back and see all the labor you put in and it’s really satisfying,” Steele said.

From now until the summer harvest begins, volunteers will continue to maintain the gardens weekly.

Roberti said she likes to think of Waukegan as a community of people who come together to help one another, and in tending the gardens, it’s easy to see that collaboration.

“You hear about all the bad things that go on, but there’s also so much good here,” Roberti said. “I could tell you story after story about all the good that people do every day. There’s a lot of hope and talent here.”

Yadira Sanchez Olson is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.