Fifteen-year old Reiona Jones said the Warren Sharpe Community Center’s Aug. 14-17 trip to Washington, D.C., where she toured first lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden, was a lesson not only in gardening but growing up.
“I’d never been that far from home,” she said, emphasizing how the trip gave her a first look at independence.
The Joliet-area community center departed for D.C. after receiving an invitation July 31.
Kay Bolden, CEO of Warren Sharpe Community Center, felt great pride and joy when she heard the news.
“It’s validation for everything we’re doing,” she said, emphasizing how important it was having the community center visit the first lady’s garden.
She first submitted an application for the White House Kitchen Garden Tours in fall 2013 and when she didn’t get a response, she reapplied in fall 2014.
Bolden said she was inspired by Obama and her “Let’s Move” movement so much that she refused to see her efforts go to waste. She reached out to Sen. Dick Durbin and congressman Bill Foster and received the letter of support she needed.
She said Foster and his staff came to visit the community center July 20 for a “garden party luncheon,” where food from the garden was served.
“He was really engaged with the kids,” Bolden said, noting that Foster reached out to the children asking them about what it’s like maintaining a garden.
She said one of the biggest challenges once getting the invite was having only 14 days to prepare for the trip.
The Healthy Community Commission at Silver Cross Hospital has been a long-time support for the community center and its garden, so Bolden came to them for assistance in organizing the trip. Margie Woods, chairman of Healthy Community Commission, arranged for D’Arcy Motors to donate a vehicle for transportation, and for the hospital to fund the trip.
Along the way, 15 kids and 5 adults from the community center had the added opportunity to visit the Lincoln Memorial, take a trolley tour, stop at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial, and hang out at Six Flags, among other places.
The tour of Kitchen Garden took place Aug. 17 and gave the community center more reasons to feel inspired.
Bolden noted that Obama has a beehive in her garden; one of several initiatives she would love to bring back to Joliet.
“Eventually, I’d like for us to have a fresh market that’s year round,” she said.
The community center sits in a food desert, leaving families with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Bolden said that fruits and vegetables provided by the community center support over 600 households.
Children and teens at Warren Sharpe will eat salads everyday, allowing them to try new and different foods that might not always be available at reasonable prices in grocery stores.
Warren Sharpe started its first community garden in 2013 and since then, they’ve acquired three others –the most recent which was transferred to them Aug. 4.
City officials said they felt compelled to purchase and convey a fourth vacant lot to the center after seeing its benefit to the community over the years.
“It’s something that’s not only sustainable because of the food grown but for educational purposes,” said James Haller, director of community economic development for the city of Joliet.
Bolden said she has taken garden training programs from Will Allen, the author of “The Good Food Revolution.” Neighbors and local farmers in the area often make themselves available for assistance, as well.
The Warren Sharpe Community Center has a number of partners and funders including Silver Cross, the city of Joliet, First Midwest Bank and ComEd.
Warren Sharpe is a United Way Agency that has served the community since 1991.