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Pikes Peak Urban Gardens and its partners hope to help the poor and homeless 

Growing out of poverty

For the stylishly health-conscious consumer, having a garden is almost as essential these days as perfecting your downward dog.

Thus Pikes Peak Urban Gardens — the local nonprofit that teaches people how to care for plants, and builds popular community gardens and backyard plots — has been well-supported since its founding in 2007. But founder and executive director Larry Stebbins thinks gardens are important to a wider set of people.

"By teaching others how to [garden], you empower them to be more in control of their food supply," he says. And, he adds, "The people who need the most help, we feel, are the low-income neighborhoods."

For years now, PPUG staff and hundreds of volunteers have been constructing community gardens in low-income areas. They have not only produced food, but also connected people. Stebbins recalls one unlikely duo, a man living in subsidized housing and a doctor, who would have long conversations.

"People come in their dungarees," he says. "You don't know if they're rich, poor or whatever. And it's a great equalizer, and it's a great way for people to come together."

With successes like those in mind, Stebbins and community partners are expanding PPUG's reach in an effort to reboot the Dorchester Park community garden. It opened years ago near South Nevada Avenue with the intention of getting the area's homeless to participate, and after early success, wilted over time.

Stebbins is also excited about his latest initiative, the Pikes Peak Pollination Project, which creates backyard gardens in poor neighborhoods and connects gardeners to each other in a cooperative arrangement. A new grant allowed him to build a group of gardens in the southeast area this month.

For the homeless

In 2010, the Independent wrote about the opening of the Dorchester Park community garden. The ideas were to produce food for the poor, to give the homeless a chance to get involved in a positive activity, and to clean up Dorchester Park.

A host of nonprofits were involved in the grant-and-donation-funded project. Stebbins says it worked well for a couple years, with many men at Springs Rescue Mission choosing to work in it as a part of their therapy. But in 2012, no men signed up. Last season, few people worked in the garden, and no volunteers were available this year.

Lyn Harwell, executive director of Seeds Community Café, worked with homeless clients when he was employed at Springs Rescue Mission. He still has a keen interest in the plots, and helped Seeds arrange a deal with PPUG to provide volunteers — including homeless people — to tend the gardens this season. Seeds will keep much of the produce, with the rest going to other nonprofits or to market.

Seeds isn't the only organization interested in the garden. Notably, the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission is working with other organizations on a possible larger program in Dorchester. They're applying for a grant from the city (the application is due Friday) that could turn Dorchester into a true homeless outreach site, modeled after similar programs in other cities.

Steve Saint, associate director of the J&P Commission, says he's also applying for other grants. He hopes to one day hire a licensed professional counselor who would garden with the homeless while also helping them through any barriers to recovery.

"There's going to be gardening going on," he says, "and relationships will flourish, and it will become a healthy place to go."

Spreading community

In addition to Dorchester, Stebbins is focusing his energy on what he believes could become PPUG's signature initiative: the Pikes Peak Pollination Project.

The idea came from humble beginnings. Last year, PPUG helped several low-income locals build backyard garden plots, which they dubbed "victory gardens." The plots were successful; Stebbins remembers one couple who expanded their garden at their own expense, and ended up growing so much food that they reduced their dependence on food stamps by 70 percent in the summer months.

"I love that, when I see the confidence just exuding from folks," he says. "When they start off really shy and end up with this look, this sparkle in their eye that says, 'I've done this; I can do this.'"

PPUG learned some lessons from those west-side gardens, however. Notably, that if you want to create a gardening community, the plots need to be close together. So this year, with the help of a $3,000 grant from the Colorado Home and Garden Show, partner agencies and lots of volunteers, PPUG built nine backyard gardens within walking distance of each other, in the Harrison School District area.

PPUG will also provide participating families with plants, and connect them with volunteer gardening experts who they can call or visit if problems arise. The neighbors will also be expected to share tips and swap produce. They'll be able to sell any excess produce they grow to local markets and stores.

"We're going to start forming additional pods this summer," Stebbins says, "so they'll be ready to go next year."

stanley@csindy.com

  • Growing out of poverty

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