James (left) and Jesse plant corn and pole beans in the Healing Garden.
Geoffrey Martin (left) shows Zeke (center) and Jose how to plant vegetables.
Six boxes of dirt. That's all you could see on Saturday morning on the grounds of St. PJ's Children's Home on Mission Road. But by noon, the boxes were also filled with seeds and plants that grow roots deep in soil and soul, while nourishing bodies and minds.
The Healing Garden is the latest in an ongoing project Security Service Federal Credit Union has set up to benefit the children at the home.
It started four years with the older children who will soon transition to the outside world once they are of age. Volunteers from the credit union had in mind to help the girls learn how to write a check, balance a checkbook, and live on a budget.
It soon grew to include other areas, such as what is involved in eating healthfully, says Letha Harrelson, business development manager for the credit union and head of the project. Pretty soon, the older girls were also learning how to shop for fresh foods as well as how to prepare them.
Jessica just wants to play with a trowel.
The garden idea came along next and now involves all 139 children at St. PJ's — except for the infants, of course, says Sherry Loyd, director of program services at St. PJ's.
"We just let everybody get involved," Harrelson says. "They're all just great kids."
Security Service also got the San Antonio Food Bank involved in establishing the gardens.
On two previous Saturdays, the kids, along with plenty of supervision from Geoffrey Martin, garden manager for the Food Bank, and Security Service volunteers, built a half-dozen garden boxes and filled them with dirt. That made everything ready for this past Saturday, when a group of boys ages 5-9 gladly pitched in to plant the seeds and a few plants.
Who wouldn't want to help? After all, it was a sanctioned time to play in the dirt. A few had that in mind, too, as they appeared more interested in using the trowels and rakes to scatter dirt clods and rocks about. But others were captivated enough to make sure the seeds were planted deep enough and covered sufficiently.
Leatha Harrelson (left) talks with Jose (center) and Jesse about the garden.
At first, two of the boys, James and Jesse, thought it odd that they were planting corn and pole beans together. But as Martin told them, "The beans make food that the corn needs." The corn will spring up first, but then the bean plants will climb around the corn.
Okra, peppers and tomatoes were among the other foods that made it into the ground.
Of the seeds planted, the children will probably be able to eat lettuce first, after about 45 days, then tomatoes in 60 days, Martin says. That is, if there are no problems with insects. Should that occur, the gardener will help the kids by showing them how to apply one of three organic pesticides.
The garden boxes will be seasonal. "We're going to grow them year-round," Martin says.
Why go to all this effort? "It gives them a sense of where their food comes from and hopefully the beauty of the process," says Martin, adding that he has "enjoyed soils and plants all my life." Plus, the more fresh fruit and vegetables that the children incorporate into their diet, the healthier they will be.
"Who knows? One of these children may be the next secretary of agriculture or a plant physiologist," he says.
That is, if the children are willing to eat what they grow. Some were not too thrilled with the thought of green beans and especially not lima beans, even though the latter wasn't on the planting schedule. Others talked about how much they loved tomatoes.
Tomato plants and pepper plants are part of the garden.
Seeing the joy on the kids' faces was all Martin needed to make the effort worthwhile. "This blesses me to be able to help these children," he says.
All of the children at St. PJ's are available for adoption. For more information, call 210-533-1203.