Members of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington have been gardening for more than 15 years, but with the opening of the Care Center on its campus this month, the stakes have risen.
"It's given us more visibility," said Sandra Aussem of Palatine, who coordinates volunteers for the church's Giving Garden.
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Last year alone, the Care Center helped more than 17,000 families at its previous location in Hoffman Estates. The garden served as one of their primary sources for fresh vegetables.
"The produce yielded by the Giving Garden helps us provide nutritionally balanced groceries to our guests," said Nicole Burt, Care Center director.
Volunteer gardeners typically work on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and they've got their work cut out for them. This year, the garden is expanding to nearly 1 acre, tucked away in the campus' southwest corner.
The garden is affiliated with Willow Creek's compassion and justice ministry, where the mission is to "fight poverty and injustice so that lives are transformed."
Working in the garden gives congregation members a tangible way to carry out that mission, consequently more small communities from within the church's large congregation are coming out.
"We love to have them. They bring so much energy," Aussem said. "They really help us move this garden along."
Kim Firth of Carpentersville began volunteering in April, and she works in the garden every week.
"I was looking for a different way to serve," said Firth, whose son usually comes to help, "and this was outside and something I could do."
Last week, students from Camelot Therapeutic Day School in Hoffman Estates began working in the garden.
"I like being able to help the environment," said 12-year old Andrew, who happily pulled weeds for an hour.
His classmate, Alonzo, carefully placed wire cages over the new tomato plants, spaced neatly in a row.
"I hope it helps the food pantry," he said.
Tomato plants make up the biggest crop, but volunteers also planted peppers, lettuce, eggplant, squash, beans, kale and -- for the first time -- corn. The church's neighbor, Goebbert's Farm & Nature Center in South Barrington, provided many of the seedlings.
Maintenance crews from the church tilled the soil and have worked out a watering system for the garden. Between the volunteers and Mother Nature, they expect to produce thousands of pounds of vegetables this summer.
But there's an added benefit that keeps Aussem and her crews coming back.
"You hardly hear any cars or trucks," she says. "It's so peaceful back here."