By Ruthanne Johnson
MONTE VISTA— On Tuesday, Aug. 7, representatives from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) traveled from Ashton, Va. to spend the day with kids and employees at Monte Vista Kids Connection.
The group also visited the Jessie May Olson Memorial Community Garden, a community-led initiative headed up by Wanda Hawman to provide local residents with space to grow fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs.
The group’s cross-country trip to Kids Connection came as a result of a $35,000 grant the NRPA awarded to the Monte Vista nonprofit. Developing community support services and connections to local food systems such as community gardens and food hubs, helps work toward goals of increasing the number of healthy meals children receive and providing education to families about healthier living. Kids Connection used the funds to purchase a commercial freezer, countertop refrigerator, heavy duty stainless steel shelves shelves and a bus for field trips to the community garden, Conour Animal Shelter and Sand Dunes Swimming Pool.
The grant was part of a $1.5 million donation the NRPA received from the Wal-Mart Foundation, intended for dispersal to programs like Kids Connection. Out of 30 grant applicants, only 10 programs were selected. Three of those programs were in Colorado. The rest were in Kansas and Mississippi.
Kids Connection is an after school and summer day camp program for youth ages five to 18. Rio Grande County households earning less than $75,000 annually are eligible for free access. Otherwise, the cost runs $15 or $20 per week per child, depending on how far in advance the fee is paid. The program serves an average of 64 kids during the school year and 75 kids in summer.
The NRPA reapplies every year for the Wal-Mart Foundation grant, which means future funds to support programs like Kids Connection are not guaranteed. “It’s our hope it continues, but we encourage our grant awardees to create sustainable programs so they can keep it going if there’s no additional money,” said NRPA program specialist Maureen Acquino. Items such as transport buses and refrigerators are the kind of purchases that help programs reach sustainability towards the health-oriented practices encouraged by NRPA.
Kids Connection students 11 years and older visit the community garden at least once every two weeks. The nonprofit used grant money awarded by the Do Good Foundation to buy 300 starter plants for the garden and to build a bee hotel. “And then we planted flower pots along the fence post to give them flowers to pollinate,” said Kids Connection program director Anika Velasquez.
Velasquez said she applied for the NRPA grant after a colleague forwarded her the information. Having the grant has been an incredible boost to the program, she said.
Acquino said Kids Connection was chosen because the strength of the community was already there. “That’s what we were looking for, so the grant can enhance what is already there,” she said. “That’s key for sustainability rather than starting from scratch.”
The NRPA representatives quietly toured the community garden, seemingly impressed with the rows of carrots, peas and peppers sown by the Kids Connection children.
“Some of the peppers were planted in cups at Kids Connection while it was still cold out. Then the kids came over to help transplant them,” said Hawman. “Other garden areas they’ve helped with were grown from seed. We’ve got cucumbers, carrots and radishes, which grow phenomenally.
Hawman’s garden dates back 100 years, to when her grandmother tended certain fruits and veggies in the same soil. Her house was built more than a century ago by her grandfather and his brothers, who harvested the trees from deep in the San Juan Mountains before hauling them back on mule-driven wagons to the one-acre plot. “After my grandmother, it was my aunt who gardened here.”
Though Hawman moved away from Monte Vista for a short time, she returned. When she did, everything in the garden was dead except for a few trees. She started a community garden to help her manage the large property and give back to the community. The garden— named after her aunt Jessie May Olson— brought new life to the landscape.
Veggies planted by the children from Kids Connection are sold at the Monte Vista Farmers Market and proceeds are donated back to the nonprofit. Other harvested foods are sold at the market to help sustain the garden, which boasts giant sunflowers, native Rocky Mountain penstemon, an apricot tree, gooseberry, milkweed and wild currants. Three other community members regularly help Hawman plant, harvest and sell at the farmers market.
The kids also learn about things like how marigolds reduce aphid infestation and how cosmos and blue flax attract butterflies and bees and about succession gardening and how milkweed is necessary for monarch butterflies.
Acquino bubbled about the program’s success. “To have kids involved in gardening and see start to finish how things grow and then to reap the benefits is so circular and powerful.”