Good News: Volunteers, faith groups in Arlington Heights, Elk Grove grow vegetables for food pantries

More than 20 years after the Daily Herald sponsored a program that encouraged backyard gardeners to "plant a row for the hungry," local faith communities are continuing to plant - and drawing lots of eager partners.

Take the Clerics of St. Viator, based in Arlington Heights. Ten years ago, the community dedicated a portion of its land to creating a giving garden. Right from the start, its intent was to grow fresh vegetables for families served by area food pantries.

The Rev. Daniel Hall, now Provincial, said it succinctly: "It's all about feeding the hungry."

This year, the community doubled the size of the garden. Enclosed by a white picket fence, it now includes 25 raised beds. Initially, its gardeners included Viatorian associates, brothers and priests, as well as staff members and students from St. Viator High School.

Father Corey Brost, back left, works with the Children of Abraham Coalition in the Viatorian Community Garden. Courtesy of Viatorian Community

Some of their new partners include the Children of Abraham Coalition, First United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights and a team from the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.

"As we saw nationally during the pandemic, communities everywhere turned their attention to the outdoors in ways we hadn't in our busy lives for years," says Jennifer Czajka, programs and exhibits manager for the library.

"People saw the health benefits of more time unplugged, firsthand, and the planet saw some brief environmental benefits when activity slowed down," she adds. "We want to continue to provide and encourage opportunities to connect and learn outdoors for this reason."

Employees of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library began planting at the Viatorian Community Garden in Arlington Heights. Courtesy of John Dussman

Czajka led the group in planting last week. They pledge to donate at least half of what they grow, while finding creative ways to utilize the rest of their yield, possibly in kitchen classes at the library's new Makerplace and at monthly garden and produce swaps.

In Elk Grove Village, members of Prince of Peace United Methodist Church are finding similar interest in their garden ministry.

The Viatorian Community Garden doubled in size this year and drew gardeners from throughout the community to help in its mission to feed the hungry. Courtesy of John Dussman

What started out in 1996 as a tomato patch located behind the church nurtured by church member Bob Lawson, has grown into a true community garden. Its mission took off in 2014 when members of the Living Green in Elk Grove partnered with the church.

This grass-roots organization, dedicated to promoting sustainable living, built raised beds for the garden and drew volunteers from throughout the community to help them.

"The majority of our volunteers are not church members," says Michelle Pohlman, who started the Living Green group.

Members of UPS for DownS gather around one of the raised beds at the garden behind Prince of Peace United Methodist Church in Elk Grove Village. Courtesy of Lisa Reninger

One dedicated group of volunteers are the members of UPS for DownS, the Down syndrome support group based in Schaumburg. Parents of participants started a Healthy Living group, which included meeting with dietitians.

Lindsey and Reg Pazerunas start seedlings they hope will contribute vegetables to the Elk Grove Township Food Pantry. Courtesy of Lisa Reninger

Their club met weekly in the summer and soon expanded to volunteering at the Prince of Peace garden, suggested by Susan Rizzo, a dietitian and church member. They soon joined in donating their produce to the Elk Grove Township food pantry.

Lisa Reninger of Schaumburg, who started the club with her daughter, Allie, says the group alternates weeks with indoor healthy living classes and working outdoors in the garden.

Club member Zach Zambito plants onion bulbs for the garden behind Prince of Peace United Methodist Church in Elk Grove Village, while club moderator Lisa Reninger observes. Courtesy of Lisa Reninger

"We're learning about truly organic gardening, using rain barrels and creating our own compost," Reninger says. "Our Healthy Living and Garden Club has been such a great example of all that we at UPS for DownS are about - support, information, community."

Other volunteers at Prince of Peace come from the Elk Grove Township food pantry, Village of Elk Grove employees, Ascension Alexian Brothers, Cook County Forest Preserve employees, Elk Grove, Hoffman Estates and Conant high schools, Girl Scout troops, Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove, Elk Grove Public Library patrons, Elk Grove Garden Club, Elk Grove Park District and the Kenneth Young Center.

Members of Prince of Peace Church dedicated their garden to its founders, Bob and Doris Lawson. Courtesy of Michelle Pohlman

"Our main purpose is to support needy families, educate as many people as possible on sustainable ways to grow organic food, and support our planet," Pohlman says. "To us, this is the way to positively make a difference on a local level, especially since many of us feel overwhelmed and helpless with the state of the world."

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