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A helping hand for vegetable garden that feeds HIV/AIDS patients

Jahmal Cole, head of My Block My Hood My City, gathered about 250 people to lend a hand pulling weeds from a community garden Sunday that grows vegetables for people with HIV/AIDS. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Jahmal Cole doesn’t usually pull weeds.

His nonprofit — My Block, My Hood, My City — focuses on expanding the worldview of Chicago teenagers, who rarely step outside their neighborhoods, by taking them on field trips.

But when he heard another do-gooder organization could use a helping hand, he marshaled his troops, more than 150 volunteers — and they showed up Sunday morning at a 2.6 acre patch of dirt at Chicago FarmWorks in the 400 block of North Kedzie in the Garfield Park neighborhood.

Folks from the Heartland Alliance, another nonprofit that has dozens of programs in the city that battle an abundance of social ills, put them to work pulling weeds on land that will grow vegetables for people battling HIV/AIDS.

Food pantries on the North, South and West Sides, along with one in Elk Grove Village, will distribute the 10,000 pounds of vegetables the garden is expected to yield this season — about 30,000 servings.

Jessica Surma, urban agriculture coordinator for Heartland Alliance, prepares the Chicago FarmWorks field for planting Sunday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Jessica Surma, urban agriculture coordinator for Heartland Alliance, prepares the Chicago FarmWorks field for planting Sunday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Workers also leveled a patch of the land that will be made available for folks from the neighborhood to start their own vegetable gardens.

“Thank you guys for coming,” Cole, 33, of Chatham, told the volunteers before they got to work. “Our motto is simple . . . do what you can and do the best you can.”

Pamela Bergson does a lot of volunteering and thought it was important to bring her son, Walker, who’s about to turn 6.

Pamela Bergson with son, Walker, and husband, Josh Emmons, volunteered Sunday at Chicago FarmWorks. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Pamela Bergson with son, Walker, and husband, Josh Emmons, volunteered Sunday at Chicago FarmWorks. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

“I want him to have the same sense of engagement and investment that I do, but the volunteering I do usually is something he can’t do,” said Bergson, 41, a software developer from Bucktown.

Walker never sees his mom handing out late-night meals to homeless folks in Pilsen. It’s past his bedtime. And he isn’t too familiar with the Syrian refugee family she co-sponsors.

“This one he gets,” she said. “He gets the idea of ‘People need food. We’re going to grow food. Get the weeds out of the way.’ ”

Erika Ford-Oliver with her daughter, Nyla, 9, at Chicago FarmWorks. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Erika Ford-Oliver with her daughter, Nyla, 9, at Chicago FarmWorks. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Erika Ford-Oliver, 30, of the South Loop, also wanted to use the event to teach her daughter, Nyla, 9.

“I wanted her to know that things don’t just happen because you snap your fingers, or just because you asked for that,” she said of the luxury of having access to food.

“Everything that is here is because somebody put in some work, and now she can be a part of that, too,” said Ford-Oliver, who works for the Chicago Board of Education.