Camaraderie grows in community garden in Coraopolis


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A dozen volunteers chatted cheerfully at the Community Garden in Coraopolis Saturday as they tended 14 garden beds with leafy green plants growing nicely in perfectly straight lines.

Their backyard garden on Broadway Street consists of strawberries, corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, raspberries, eggplant, sweet potatoes and herbs. Basil, parsley and cilantro have already been harvested and distributed at the Coraopolis Cooperative food pantry.

The fruits of their gardening labor will be split -- about half of the produce will go to the food pantry and the rest will go to the volunteers who regularly tend the garden.

It takes a village to grow this garden, starting with volunteers and board members from the nonprofit Coraopolis Community Development Foundation and staff and students from Cornell School District and Robert Morris University.

Among the volunteers are food pantry recipients and members of the Charis247 Community Church in Coraopolis, including rector Sam Jampetro, an Anglican priest.

But that's not all. The garden gets financial support and hands-on help from the staff of Grow Pittsburgh and its partner nonprofit, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Those two groups execute the Allegheny Grows program in the suburban municipalities with funds from the Allegheny County Office of Economic Development.

The garden is behind a vacant, abandoned house that has been repaired by the Coraopolis Community Development Foundation. Now called The Garden House, it is being used as a "living skills center," said Father Jampetro, who started the foundation seven years ago. "We want to help people out of poverty."

Classes that will be taught there include English as a Second Language, computer skills and courses to help people earn a GED certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma.

"We took out three truckloads of weeds and vines" before planting could begin, said Anthony Bibbo, who provides learning support for fifth- and sixth-graders in Cornell.

Volunteers fenced the property, built a storage shed and made compost containers -- filling them with scraps from the food bank and with materials brought in by Grow Pittsburgh.

May 4 was Join Hands Day at the community garden, where volunteers did the planting from seeds. Volunteers that day included students and teachers from the Cornell Elementary School and their principal, Sarah Shaw.

"Students loved it and many of them are still volunteering regularly," Mr. Bibbo said.

James Thompson and William Harvey, both fifth-graders from Coraopolis, were helping to tie fast-growing tomato plants to stakes and to build trellises for the beans to climb.

"I love to garden," James said. "I used to garden at home, but our space is too small."

Weekly work days in the garden are Fridays and Saturdays.

Weeding and watering during the week is handled by Herb Davis, who lives in the Garden House.

"The church is helping me out, so I am giving back by contributing" to the garden, he said. He waters as needed, usually twice a week.

"Not only are we providing food, which is needed, but people are coming together who did not know each other before," Father Jampetro said.

That includes students and staff from Robert Morris.

The university's main campus is in Moon, the university-owned Island Sports Center is on Neville Island, and Coraopolis is in the middle, so there was an interest in reaching out to the university, Father Jampetro said.

About 200 to 300 RMU students rent apartments in Coraopolis, said Mr. Bibbo, who used to work in the volunteer office on campus. Students enjoy doing community service in Coraopolis, and the university encourages volunteerism.

Also working there Saturday was Lisa Nutt, who works with international students as associate director for RMU's Center for Global Engagement.

The garden has had some setbacks. During two cold spells in May, young vegetable plants had to be covered. Only a couple of plants did not survive the low temperatures. Rabbits ate the initial planting of strawberries, but a second batch is thriving. Fine-mesh metal fencing has been added to the wooden fence to keep out the rabbits.

While many of the volunteer gardeners have no prior experience, they get expert help from Rayden Sorock of Grow Pittsburgh. "This is a first-year garden, so I'm here every week," he said.

Two experienced volunteers are Heather Henry and her husband, Mike, who also volunteer at the pantry and at the Coraopolis Community Development Foundation. Though they have a big garden at their Coraopolis home, "Every time I come to the community garden, I get excited," Mrs. Henry said.

"Everything is getting bigger and bigger" and there is always something to look forward to, she said. Volunteers will probably add some flowers to the garden "to attract pollinators," she said.

Their contributions include Mr. Henry taking photographs, which Mrs. Henry posts to the Coraopolis Community Development Facebook page so that everyone can see how the garden grows, every step of the way.

Grow Pittsburgh gets financial support from the Colcom Foundation, H.J. Heinz Co. Foundation and PNC Foundation.

Applications for programs in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are available in July.

Information: www.growpittsburgh.org or 412-362-4769.

neigh_west

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087. First Published June 20, 2013 9:00 AM


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