Cory Miller pulls large orange carrots from a small raised bed as North Side traffic zooms by the Light of Life Rescue Mission. Mr. Miller, an instructional chef, uses all the produce grown here to help feed the homeless and others who rely on the mission.
“We want fresh vegetables to keep the nutrition up,” he says. “The fresher [it is], the more they eat it and the more nutritious it is.”
Beginning with an idea four years ago, the garden is tended by small groups comprised of staff and residents. The mission on North Avenue provides food and shelter for men, women and children in need. It also offers emergency services, such as meals and shelter for anyone who asks, and it has longer-term programs for clients looking to make a positive change in their lives.
Mr. Miller is in the midst of preparing at treat for diners here, a pasta bar. His pesto and cream sauce — made with fresh basil and parsley from the garden — is just one choice of sauces.
The garden is filled with tomatoes, peppers, beets, carrots, sunflowers, cucumbers, onions, basil, parsley and other herbs. Everything is grown without chemicals.
Much of the food served day after day here is donated, and Mr. Miller uses the fresh produce to spice things up and cut down on repetitive meals. He loves the spontaneity of creating special meals from what he has — both inside and out.
“Having a garden right alongside of us is huge,” he says. “I can always keep it fresh and incorporate good ingredients.”
Healthy food “is important to the way we behave, the way our mind works [and for] our emotional health,” especially for people going through recovery, Mr. Miller says. “It’s great to give them nutrients that can take them through their day.”
Jody Young was homeless, had nowhere to go and was battling addictions to both drugs and alcohol. The garden is one thing that has helped him get healthy.
“I’m changing my life,” he says while standing proudly in front of shrublike tomato plants.
He sees parallels between recovery and gardening. “To have something growing is change, and that’s the way I think I am. I’m growing and changing.”
He learned to garden from his grandfather. Beside tomatoes, his group grows peppers, lettuces, herbs and carrots. His expertise, especially for harvesting, is needed here. He gently corrects Mr. Miller when he sees him pulling whole leaves from heads of Romaine lettuce.
“Once it’s ready, you just cut 6 inches from the bottom. It will grow another shoot, so you can actually pick it twice in a season,” he tells him.
Working in the garden busies his hands and mind. “I take the time to focus on the garden instead of bad things I need to stay away from,” he says.
Mr. Young makes sure the garden is watered and weed-free, and he helps pick vegetables for the kitchen. “It just shows when you put your mind to something you can really do it. It takes a lot of love and a lot of watering.”
For the past six months Tim Prodanovich has stayed at the mission and worked in the garden. His love of gardening can be traced to his father. He’s got vegetables and herbs growing in his group’s garden, but it’s the bright yellow sunflowers that make him happy.
“They just grow so strong and majestic,” he says.
Kate Wadsworth, the mission’s public relations manager, helps with a plot, too, although she admits to spending more time taking pictures of the garden than working in the soil, Ms. Wadsworth has seen how the garden can work as a therapeutic tool.
“They are working in the soil, working with their hands. They see a tangible outcome for this hard work they are doing. It can be a way for them to connect with their recovery. That hard work and patience can have big results,” she says.
The garden is lush at its peak, providing lots of fresh food and more. She has watched both the garden and the gardeners grow.
“I hope they are able to connect with each other. It has been an opportunity for some of the guys who have invested in the garden to have a common goal that they are working on together, and that’s a really nice thing to see, not only to be doing it for themselves but for the greater good as well.”