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University of Illinois Extension

Community Initiative Works with U of I Extension to Build a Foundation for Youth Gardening Program

May 23, 2014

AURORA, Ill. – Cultivate. Nurture. Prepare. Grow. Each of these words could be referring to tending a garden or educating youth. One Chicagoland group is doing both with a new Aurora-based project.

The Urban Transformation Network is a faith-based group that plans to bring inner-city youth to the suburbs to learn about horticulture, said Don Patterson, an Aurora resident and member of Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. The goal is to give youth a way to escape violence, acquire valuable skills and, in the process, give back to their communities by providing the fresh produce they grow to food pantries.

“This is a collaboration of Chicago churches, and we want to get these students out of the city to experience something new and learn about the earth,” he said. “We want to keep kids active, off the street and preparing for the future. Give them a new mindset.”

The five participating organizations include: Greater Rock Baptist Church, Mt. Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, New Life Ministry and W.A. Kelley Community Center.

Because the initiative volunteers represent a wide range of professionals with varying levels of gardening experience, Patterson said the group felt they would benefit from an instructional class. He contacted University of Illinois Extension’s Richard Hentschel, who is a Horticulture Educator serving Patterson’s home county.

“You can’t just get a shovel and start digging,” Patterson said. “We needed the same basic knowledge and a plan so we could show, teach and then manage the youth.”

More than a dozen of the volunteers attended a four-part educational series specific to community gardens, which was taught by Hentschel and customized to meet the group’s needs.

“Each six-hour session focused on different elements of starting a community or service garden project,” Hentschel said. “We discussed planting preparation, variety choices, proper care, pest and disease management, equipment, harvesting and more.

“Our goal was to provide research-based education to help set the group toward success in their venture,” he added. “Proper planning and preparation are critical to any community or service garden project. The Initiative now has the basic building blocks to support their vision.”

The Extension educational series wrapped up with a tour of the local University of Illinois Horticulture Research Farm, and each attendee received a certificate of completion.

“The class gave us a proper foundation and understanding to get this project up and running,” said Patterson. “Many had personal gardening experience, but we all learned things we did not know.”

The volunteers are currently working several 20-by-20 plots in Aurora, and each of the churches in the initiative will be responsible for a section, Patterson said. In addition, they hope to expand to several city lots in Chicago.

“We hope this project will eventually be a model for other programs,” he said. “We hope this will lead them to bright futures and inspire careers in landscaping, parks, agriculture, and food production.”

For more information on the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture programs in your county, contact Hentschel at hentsche@illinois.edu or visit web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/. University of Illinois Extension provides educational programs and research-based information to help Illinois residents improve their quality of life, develop skills and solve problems.  

For more information on the Urban Transformation Network, contact Patterson at ptaxesrus@sbcglobal.net or at 773-677-6496.



University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment.

Source: Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator, Horticulture, hentsche@illinois.edu

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