History of the garden

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In 2013, the former director of Chatham’s Communities In Schools, Kim Caraganis, thought it would be a great idea to start a garden as a youth site and educational center for gardening, bees and nutrition.

The perfect spot was just around the corner from the CIS office near 117 E. Second St. Gwen Overturf, who had been a CIS employee since 2006, was put in charge of the garden as its director. Overturf wore a number of hats at the organization, including running the community service and teen court programs. She was also a passionate gardener.

“Miguel Olvera, my assistant in the community service and teen court programs, gets a lot of credit,” said Overturf. “We developed the garden together; he built the greenhouse, the shed and did much of the heavy work. We had a 280-gallon cistern donated by N.C. State; that was a big deal. You can water the garden without using city water — a great model for taking water that’s being wasted and using it.”

CIS used the garden as a work site for the youngsters coming through the Department of Juvenile Justice Community Service & Restitution program who were required to fulfill community service hours, Overturf said. The garden gave them a chance to get in touch with nature; some for the first time.

“They touched worms and frogs,” she said. “They also got to smell and taste the plants and watch plants started from seed come up and grow.”

She took a lot of the produce grown in the garden — tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, basil, pumpkins, melons, greens — to the West Chatham Food Pantry and also handed out produce at a community meal she started, now known as the Siler City Community Meal, still in operation today.

In 2019, Overturf retired and not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic laid siege upon the country and the world. The garden became dormant.

In June of 2021, CIS’ current executive director, Tych Cowdin, was contacted by Danielle McComas, the director and co-founder of Robin Hood’s Kitchen, a local area organization that uses food recovery from local farmers and businesses to cook and provide nutrient rich, ready-to-eat meals in an effort to help curb food insecurity and build towards food equity in the community.

“She thought the set up was perfect for their needs,” said Cowdin. “The infrastructure from the previous garden was all in place; there was a cistern, underground watering, a shed and greenhouse. We all felt it would be great to get the garden going again.”

Efforts to build the beds back up and revitalize the soil began with help from volunteers and businesses such as Lowes, which donated soil, and Mountaire, which provided a $2,000 grant for materials. Jeff Eaby, a regular Robin’s Hood volunteer, has redesigned and rebuilt many of the beds with assistance from two of the elders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The garden will continue to be utilized as a worksite for youth needing to complete community service hours required as part of the Department of Juvenile Justice Community Service & Restitution program,” said Cowdin. “CISCC will also utilize the garden as educational space for our Cooking Matters program, which will get back up and running next fall.”

Cooking Matters is a culinary class for teens that teaches students how to feed and cook for themselves.

“Whatever food we can get from the garden,” he added, “we will use as ingredients in the classes.”

It’s important to teach children where their food comes from and how to prepare it, Cowdin said. Plus, as Overturf notes: “This type of activity and learning can open the doors (to) new experiences. I’m for getting kids outside and letting them learn through observation, how to look and see.”

Using greenhouse facilities and winter plants, garden production will be year-round. McComas expects to plant trees in the fall. In winter, focus will shift to care of winter plants and taking steps to maintain healthy soil. Future aspirations include creating a courtyard where different organizations or special interest groups can meet and placing art in the garden, including murals and multimedia pieces that interact with nature.

“One of our goals is for people to come here and feel safe and comfortable, inspired,” McComas said. “They can come and take it in, rest and relax, bring their coffee and walk around or sit. They can arrange for a special meeting. If they want to reach out to plant and grow, we’ll set it up.

“The garden has a rich history and wonderful groups of people working on it,” she added. ‘It has a great future.”

Those interested in program information or volunteer opportunities may email info@robinhoodskitchen.org. To donate or learn more about Robin Hood’s Kitchen, please visit robinhoodskitchen.org.

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