Maris Cooke, a long-time adjunct faculty member in the Department of Professional and Liberal Studies (PLS) program, has been awarded a second McCormick Tribune Foundation Transformational Service-Learning Grant from RU’s Mansfield Institute of Social Justice and Transformation. The grant will help fund an urban community garden which helps provide nutritious fruits and vegetables that are largely beyond the budgets of people who live below the poverty level.
Cooke’s part in the project began back in 2006, when her students in a PLS 391 Seminar in Natural Sciences voiced their concerns about urban environmental deterioration and the poverty that often surrounds it, after learning about it in their class. They wanted to do something meaningful–and so did Cooke. Cooke knew about community gardens and had worked in several, so began researching opportunities to blend student awareness, philanthropy, and social justice within an urban garden setting.
Cooke learned about the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago’s Mission Outreach Program, which in 2002, began the conversion of an outdoor basketball court to a community garden. The garden is located on a property the church owns next to the Cabrini Green Public Housing Project. The garden provides church members and residents of Cabrini Green with gardening plots on which to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The church, with their community partners, provide educational programs and monthly cookouts for adults and children at the garden. After learning about the church’s project, Cooke applied for and received her first service-learning grant in 2008, in the amount of $6000, and Roosevelt University became one of the church’s community partners.
The students in Cooke’s PLS 391 have been at the garden for several events since the spring of 2008. They co-hosted two events: the Healthy Living, Healthy Eating Cookout in the summer of 2009, and the Fall Harvest Festival in October 2009. Students attending these functions have served in a variety of roles: some weeded and watered the garden; others served and cooked food at the monthly cookouts, while still others engaged with the children who come to the garden for educational and recreational programs. Cooke says “My intent for our participation in the garden was to demonstrate what can be done with vacant spaces in any urban setting. The conversion of vacant spaces can rehabilitate communities, and provide a setting that is a safe haven for children and adults that can create or reinforce community ties.”
The garden is currently in a transformational period as the Cabrini Green Public Housing projects are being torn down. However,with the Cabrini Row Houses and nearby North Town Village, the garden is about to become a year round urban farm. In conjunction with Growing Power, a national organization that supports efforts of this kind, this transformation will begin over the summer of 2010. Cooke’s 2010 grant, which is $1850, will fund a Children’s Garden, the creation of a herb garden, the purchase of rain barrels to defray costs of watering and which are an environmentally sound practice for the conservation of water, and the purchase of one of the year-round greenhouses.
Beginning in May of this year and through the fall of 2010, students in the PLS 391 course and the new SUST 230 course (“Food”), will be helping with this conversion, and also attending and working at various community cookouts and educational events sponsored by the farm. Cooke says, “What is most meaningful to me is the interaction between our students and the children . . . you can clearly see how important it is for these children to have the friendly and generous attention of adults, whether it is helping them to fill their plates, helping them to water the children’s garden, or playing games with them. It is a meaningful and rewarding experience that our students will take with them for the rest of their lives.”