PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — The small vegetable garden beside St. Ann Catholic Church got a lot bigger this year, and in the future it might encompass a good chunk of a city block.

It's being called "Garden of Hope," a name that references the endeavor's goal. The project will not only bring fresh produce to residents of the impoverished neighborhood, it will also provide a safe, healthful gathering place. On Thursday afternoon, organizers introduced the community to the garden with a kickoff bash which featured a DJ, food and giveaways, including school supplies donated by OSF HealthCare employees.

"The garden is an effort to bring the community together," said Mary Ann Burk, a Faith Community Nurse with OSF HealthCare who has an office in St. Ann Church. With a desire to help area residents, she decided three summers ago to plant some vegetables in the unused plot of land she could see from her office window. She was recently joined in the endeavor by another nurse, Jo Garrison, director of ambulatory care at OSF HealthCare St. Francis. Garrison is expanding the garden as part of her doctorate project. She enlisted the help of a number of sponsors, including the city of Peoria, the University of Illinois and Illinois Central College.

"The project is a liaison between the medical world and the community," Garrison said. As part of their roles at OSF, both women are often out in the community. They have seen the difficulty lower income residents have getting fresh vegetables, and as nurses they know that diet is key to good health.

"We are looking at social determinants of health," said Garrison. "Eating healthy and being active can really help fight chronic disease."

Beyond nutrition, Garrison and Burk are thinking about the community's spiritual health as well. Gardening is a healthy activity that can provide not only exercise but also camaraderie. The hope is that the garden's neighbors will become active participants.

This year, Burk's little garden plot expanded to about ¼ acre. Next year, after the blacktop in the surrounding parking lot is removed, it will be about a full acre of green space, said gardener Mike Brooks. He was hired in June, and his full-time salary is being paid by OSF HealthCare Foundation, said Garrison. With the help of volunteer Bernie Sieks, a parishioner of St. Ann's, Brooks planted a variety of herbs and vegetables, including corn, collard greens, squash, jalapenos, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins. Since there's no faucet on the lot, the pair have had to run a garden hose from the church about six times this summer, said Brooks.

"That's about 600 to 700 feet of hose," he said. "And we actually get pressure out the other end."

Getting a water spigot onto the property is a future goal, as is expanding the garden onto neighboring lots. Ultimately, planners hope to create a large garden with not only vegetables, but also flowers to attract pollinating insects and even a few fruit trees.

"And maybe some blueberries, stuff that's not easy to come by in this area," Brooks said.

Many volunteers from St. Ann Church have contributed to the effort.

"We're just so excited about this opportunity to feed the hungry," said Father Don Roszkowski, pastor at St. Ann. "It will give people a place where they can feel safe, and perhaps they will learn a few things about growing food."

Organizers want the community to feel a sense of ownership over the garden, said Garrison. During the event, children were asked to put their handprints on colorfully-painted wooden pallets that will line the garden's fence.

"Hey, this is a great spot to put the orange one," said Christine Sherman, president of the ladies guild at St. Ann Church while leading 6-year-old Noah Youmans down the row of pallets. Noah's hands, protected by rubber gloves, dripped orange and blue paint.

Noah and his sister and cousin attended the grand opening event with Noah's father, Rich Youmans. The family lives just around the corner, and they've watched the endeavor grow.

"I like it. I think it's really good," said Rich Youmans. "I like homegrown stuff like this, and it will keep the kids off the street."

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2Mzh6ln

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com