Viatorian gardeners grow food to help families in need

  • Associate Joan Sweeney, one of the original gardeners in the Viatorian gardens in Arlington Heights, cuts flowers to arrange in bouquets for food pantry clients.

    Associate Joan Sweeney, one of the original gardeners in the Viatorian gardens in Arlington Heights, cuts flowers to arrange in bouquets for food pantry clients. Courtesy of Br. Michael Gosch

 
Submitted by Br. Michael Gosch
Posted9/11/2020 6:00 AM

With at least two more months of harvesting to go, Viatorian gardeners already have grown -- and donated -- nearly as many vegetables as all of last summer, or around 800 pounds.

Mostly, they have included corn, cucumbers, peppers, yellow squash, zucchini -- and loads of tomatoes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

All of the vegetables are raised for families in need, especially those served by Catholic Charities and the Wheeling Township Food Pantry, which serves households from throughout the Northwest suburbs.

Already this summer, Joan Sweeney has donated more than 100 bouquets. "I think of it as food for the soul," Sweeney says.
Already this summer, Joan Sweeney has donated more than 100 bouquets. "I think of it as food for the soul," Sweeney says. - Courtesy of Br. Michael Gosch

Wheeling Township Supervisor Kathy Penner says the vegetables brought in by the Viatorian gardeners are more than a donation.

"They represent a dedication to nurturing good health, positive outcomes, and the hope for a better future," Penner says. "We are incredibly grateful for the Viatorians' dedication to making people's lives better, especially during these challenging times."

Julie Villarreal, general assistance director for the township, says the numbers of people they are serving this summer have nearly doubled since the start of the year, with a significant increase in the number of first-time pantry visitors.

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"In January, there were 419 distributions representing 828 people being fed," Villarreal says. "Comparatively, in July, there were 552 distributions, or 1,425 people who utilized the food pantry -- nearly doubling the numbers since the start of the year.

"In short," she adds, "we are serving larger households, and about 25% have not been to the pantry previously."

Wheeling Township just opened up its food pantry for clients to select what they need, but since the beginning of the pandemic they have been filling bags and including fresh produce and a bouquet, when possible.
Wheeling Township just opened up its food pantry for clients to select what they need, but since the beginning of the pandemic they have been filling bags and including fresh produce and a bouquet, when possible. - Courtesy of Br. Michael Gosch

Improving people's lives was the driving force behind creating the garden. Fr. Daniel Hall, CSV, Provincial, conceived the garden in 2012 as an initiative to help provide nutritious vegetables to families in the Northwest suburbs struggling to put food on the table.

"It's all about feeding the hungry," Fr. Hall said at the outset.

Right from the start, he drew support from a variety of gardeners, from the Viatorians themselves, to staff members, as well as alumni, students and their families at Saint Viator High School in Arlington Heights.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Sharon Murphy, the mother of a Saint Viator High School graduate, started tending a plot in the Viatorian gardens with her daughter, Amanda.
Sharon Murphy, the mother of a Saint Viator High School graduate, started tending a plot in the Viatorian gardens with her daughter, Amanda. - Courtesy of Br. Michael Gosch

For the last two years, young men living at Viator House of Hospitality have tended their own plot. They view working in the garden as one way they can give back to the local community that has welcomed them while they await their asylum cases.

One of the original gardeners remains committed as ever. Associate Joan Sweeney began growing flowers as a way to beautify the garden -- and pollinate the vegetable plants. She began cutting the abundant zinnias, cosmos and Russian sage and arranging them into small bouquets for food pantry clients.

Already this summer, she has donated more than 100 bouquets of fresh flowers for food pantry clients, and she's not done yet.

"I think of it as food for the soul," Sweeney says.

In all, the garden consists of 14 raised beds surrounded by a white picket fence and located on the grounds of the Viatorian Province Center. Its plants bring the Viatorian Community back full circle. They purchased the land from an Arlington Heights farmer some 60 years ago, in 1950.

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