Willow Creek's Care Center garden grows fresh produce for families in need
It's not exactly a secret garden, but tucked away in the southwest corner of the Willow Creek Community Church campus in South Barrington is its Care Center Garden.
A small sign welcomes visitors and volunteers, but once they walk down its winding path back into a half-acre of vegetable plots, they get an idea of the mission's scope.
Last year, its volunteer gardeners harvested 6,500 pounds of vegetables, and this year they are hoping for 8,000 pounds. Its crops include: leafy greens, beans, carrots, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, onions, radishes, squash and zucchini, tomatoes and five different varieties of peppers -- grown from its 1,700 pepper plants.
New this year are peaches and apples, grown from trees donated by the Bianchini family, owners of Royal Oak Farm in Harvard.
All of these nutritious fruits and vegetables go straight to Willow Creek's Care Center and into the produce section of its food pantry, or food store as they call it, where guests can pick out what they want and take it home.
During a typical week, its food store draws between 1,000 and 1,500 families, says Marthinus Steyn, who manages the food and clothing stores inside the Care Center.
Steyn started supervising the garden in 2016, and right from the beginning he and Jorg Hentschel of Crystal Lake, the former director of grounds for Willow Creek who now manages its volunteers, wanted to create a destination.
"We had two goals: to make it aesthetically pleasing and productive," Hentschel says.
Hentschel spent 22 years on staff, but in retirement he returned as a volunteer, spending time in one of his favorite spots, the garden.
"What keeps me coming back is that it feeds the hungry," Hentschel says of the garden.
In beautifying the space, Steyn and Hentschel worked with a church member who is a landscape architect. He created its winding path lined with granite cobbles and crushed granite stones. In between are flowers, which hint as to where the walkway leads.
"Every year we've added something new," Steyn says. "This year, we're trying to create a butterfly garden, and we have beehives across the campus on Mundhank Road."
Aside from Steyn, the garden is completely volunteer run. Typically, more than one dozen volunteers turn out on Saturday mornings to weed, water and generally tend the garden. Some return on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to harvest.
"Our mission is simple," Steyn says. "We're trying to grow something fresh and get it into the hands of families who can put it on their table that night."
Willow Creek was one of the original partners in a unique program started in 2000 by the Daily Herald called "Plant a Row for the Hungry." The idea was to urge backyard gardeners to donate their surplus vegetables to area food pantries. Soon, many faith communities established gardens and began ministries to feed the hungry.
This so-called giving garden campaign -- in which the Herald partnered with area food pantries and tracked the amount of vegetables that gardeners donated -- continued through 2006. Yet, many gardeners and churches have continued the idea, growing it even larger every year.
The food store at Willow Creek is one of the largest in the area to benefit from a dedicated garden. So far this year, 9,300 families have visited, Steyn says, or 33,000 people.
The majority of those families come from the surrounding area, including Elgin, Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg, but guests also come from Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Hanover Park, Mount Prospect, Palatine and Streamwood.
While the food store receives dry goods from the Greater Illinois Food Depository and leftover items from local grocery stores, its homegrown produce is one of its biggest draws, Steyn adds.
"The biggest reasons people come to us," he says, "are the dairy and frozen meats -- and the produce. It's a free choice model. We have more than enough, so people can choose what they want."