By Sharon Sullivan
Father Edmundo Valera sprinkles holy water over a downtown Grand Junction community garden on a sunny, late spring afternoon. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and a white wool priest stole (worn specifically for blessings) draped across his shoulders, Father Edmundo performs the annual garden blessing while his Golden Labrador, “Chulo” (Spanish for cute), follows close behind. Afterward, the Catholic priest leads a small gathering of formerly homeless men and women and their supporters in a short prayer on the sidewalk in front of the garden.
What was once a barren city lot is now covered in flowers, corn, squash, leafy greens, onions, pole beans, berries and young fruit trees – planted and tended by a half-dozen men and women who live across the street at St. Benedict Place. The housing complex was built seven years ago by Grand Valley Catholic Outreach to house chronically homeless individuals with both physical and mental disabilities.
An early resident, Vietnam War veteran Richard Nye, looked out from his apartment at the empty lot six years ago and proposed planting a garden there. Thus began a community collaboration. The property owner, St. Joseph Catholic Church, consented to St. Benedict residents using the land. Desert Vista Garden Club donated money to purchase seeds, soil amendments and tools. Catholic Outreach pays for the irrigation. Soil Tech Solutions owner, Steve Casano, came by and hauled away the weeds and gravel of an adjacent lot so residents can eventually expand the garden.
After Nye passed away in January, his St. Benedict neighbor James West became chief garden caretaker. The burly, bespectacled 58-year-old wears unlaced, faded grey Converse sneakers, a baseball cap and suspenders that hold up his blue-jean shorts. He smiles as he explains why his tomato plants are so mature this early in the season: “There’s a fish buried underneath them.” Fish he catches at Corn Lake. “We used to do it on the farm.”
West grew up on a Michigan farm and clearly knows how to grow food. He learned food preservation from his grandmother who put him to work chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Last year he canned 30 quarts of dill pickles and hot pickled peppers from the garden for himself and friends. West also makes salsas and relishes. “I grow all the herbs I need to make fresh salsa,” he says.
Two years ago, West was homeless after spending 10 months in the Mesa County Jail after a confrontation with his landlord-housemate. Broke and disabled due to arthritis in his spine, West often stayed at the Rescue Mission where bed bugs bit him so badly he ended up in the hospital emergency room.
His life turned around when he was given an opportunity to move into St. Benedict Place, where residents pay rent based on their disability income. The beautifully landscaped, attractive Victorian-style apartment complex was built to provide dignified, permanent homes for an emotionally and financially fragile population. The one-bedroom apartments come furnished and supplied with household items. A handmade quilt, sewn by members of a local church group, is placed on each person’s bed when they move in. “You can’t start a new life in a run-down place. That’s why everything is new,” says Beverly Lampley of Catholic Outreach.
In the garden, Del Daggett, a slender, clean-shaven 55-year-old resident of St. Benedict, is growing romaine lettuce, onions, radishes, and rhubarb. “At middle age this is my first-ever garden,” Daggett says. “I’m learning from James and Steve Herd [St. Benedict Place site manager]. I figured it’s time to learn how to grow something. Already I’ve had four or five cuttings off the lettuce. What I don’t eat I share with some of the residents around here.”
Each morning, West crosses the street to pick a cup and a half of strawberries. By mid-June, he had already harvested four pounds of rhubarb. For today’s blessing celebration, he cooked up two huge batches of sauce – strawberry rhubarb and blueberry rhubarb – for the Neapolitan ice cream being served.
The garden blessing is planned each year to coincide with the June anniversary celebration of the opening of St. Benedict Place. After the ceremony, the gardeners and their supporters join other St. Benedict residents, parishioners, and Catholic Outreach workers for chocolate cake and ice cream outside on the St. Benedict Place lawn.
“The garden has been a hit, not just benefiting the residents,” Father Edmundo says. “A lot of produce has been brought to Catholic Outreach where they feed the homeless of the valley.”
“It’s called the ‘No Fences Garden’,” adds Lampley. “We wanted it to be open to the public.”
Early, before the day becomes too hot, West is outside pulling weeds or watering his eggplant, corn, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale, potatoes and golden peas. Between the sidewalk and the veggies, two flower beds are bursting with red and white dianthus, daisies, zinnias, blue bachelor buttons, golden calendula, pink cosmos, purple pansies, and dill. All planted to attract pollinators, West says.
The Midwestern transplant purposely sows his squash along the edge of the garden where it meets the parking lot – to make it easier for “the little old ladies” who come after church to harvest zucchinis. Plus, “What we don’t use ourselves, we give to the soup kitchen,” West says.
His fellow resident Deborah Abrams stops by the garden with her small boxer dog, Stella, who helps her with anxiety issues. Abrams, 52, is a U.S. Navy veteran with several disabilities, including mental and muscular-skeletal problems. She was homeless off and on for about five years, often staying in people’s garages or sheds. This morning she’s pulling weeds and gathering a few strawberries. “It’s a nice way to be outside and to pull out any aggressive thoughts I have,” she says.
“A lot of people use the garden for therapy,” West notes.