One good turnip 

Poor and homeless people may grow food in south downtown's oft-abused Dorchester Park

Colorado Springs Police Cmdr. Kurt Pillard remembers the one and only time he saw a mother and child at the playground at Dorchester Park. His heart was warmed.

"Community members don't use [that park] to bring their kids there to swing," Pillard says, "because they're afraid to."

Maybe things were changing, he thought.

A little later, the department got a call from the mom. She was upset because someone had apparently used the sandbox as a toilet.

Dorchester, which is located in a rough area west of South Nevada Avenue near Fountain Creek and Interstate 25, is known for attracting crime, drug users and the homeless. In 2008, William "Billy" Wilson, a homeless man, was bludgeoned to death there.

But with final approval of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board expected Thursday, Dorchester soon could be home to something else — a community garden.

Local nonprofits hope to grow food that will be tended by homeless people, poor folks and runaway teenagers, with all of it going to feed the hungry. The brainchild of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado's chief programs officer, Melissa Marts, and Pikes Peak Urban Gardens director Larry Stebbins, it's made possible by a $100,000 Colorado Garden and Home Show grant that Care and Share received. (Disclosure: Indy culture editor Matthew Schniper sits on the board of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens.)

When Marts and Stebbins contacted representatives of Urban Peak, which helps homeless youth; Springs Rescue Mission, which offers a program to get homeless men off the streets; and Catholic Charities' Marian House Soup Kitchen, all were happy to form and lead groups of their clients to nurture the garden.

The plan has other help as well. While grant funds will pay for water and other expenses — about $7,000 — Julian Garcia of local company Designer Columns and Piers has agreed to build an artistic stone and wrought-iron fence around the garden, free of charge.

John McIlwee, executive director of Urban Peak, says he's excited to get the teens in his program into the garden, probably starting this growing season.

"I think it's nurturing," he says. "I think it's that they can see their ability to grow something ... a lot of our kids need to feel good as people."

In addition to intangibles, Stebbins estimates the garden could produce more than 2,000 pounds of food each year. And, he notes, healthy food is often out of reach for impoverished people.

"A head of lettuce costs $2," he says. "A hamburger costs a buck."

The Dorchester plot is one of many community gardens being considered for the Springs. The parks board is also considering proposals for gardens at Vermijo Park, Westside Community Center and the Michaelson Property adjacent to Monument Valley Park. With the economy down and the "local" food trend in an upswing, there has also been much more interest in personal gardens.

Stebbins teaches a free monthly class on gardening. His last class attracted more than 350 people, forcing Pikes Peak Urban Gardens to look for a new venue for the lectures.


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