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Vickroy: Planting a garden, growing a community

Colleen Dunlavy (center) accepts freshly picked crops from volunteer Ty Chaney 10 St. Anne community garden Dunlavy started six years

Colleen Dunlavy (center) accepts freshly picked crops from volunteer Ty Chaney, 10, at the St. Anne community garden Dunlavy started six years ago. | Photo by Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 29, 2013 7:38PM



Colleen Dunlavy’s seedling of an idea six years ago has blossomed into a 22-bed garden that helps feed the needy as well as the spirit of community in Hazel Crest.

Dunlavy, who lives in Homewood, remembers the day she and her five children broke ground on the community garden at St. Anne Catholic Church.

“There used to be a mobile classroom on the site,” she said. “The ground was so rocky we broke two rototillers. We didn’t think anything would grow.”

But amazingly, she said, things did grow. Tomatoes, carrots, beets, even cucumbers for pickling.

Each year, the garden grew, too. It’s gone from six beds to 22, thanks to the help of tireless volunteers and local businesses, such as The Home Depot, which donated the wood for the beds, and local garden centers, which provide seeds and plants. The village supplies annual donations of mulch, enabling the gardeners to lay paths between the beds.

Dunlavy’s daughters, Megan, 18, and Anna, 15, helped build the boxes. All of Dunlavy’s kids help out, riding their bikes to the church each day after swim practice, all summer long. They haul the hoses across the parking lot to the garden plot. They water the crops and pull the weeds.

Today, at 600 square feet, the garden produces enough fresh vegetables and herbs to supply ingredients for the church’s Monday night free dinners, run by Catholic Charities.

“Most of the crops go to the needy,” Dunlavy said, although some are handed out to curious passers-by and a few get nibbled by the hard-working team of workers. Last year, Dunlavy introduced one parishioner to red onions, straight from the garden. Now the parishioner grows her own.

On a recent Monday evening, nephew Conor Dunlavy bravely tried a tiny piece of broccoli.

“Yeck,” he said, scrunching his nose.

Dunlavy just chuckled.

“He’ll come around,” she said.

Everyone who works the garden finds joy in the outcome, she said.

Megan Dunlavy said, “I like the progress. You feel like you’re accomplishing something when you see things grow. Plus we can make connections with school. When I was a freshman and had biology, we learned about some of this.”

Anna agrees.

“I just like how food starts out as a small plant or a seed and just grows and grows,” she said.

Max Dunlavy, 13, said he appreciates the money-saving aspects of growing your own food.

“Instead of spending a hundred dollars at the grocery store, you can come outside and pick what you need,” Max said.

The Dunlavys are parishioners of St. Anne. Colleen Dunlavy went to grade school there. Though the school is gone, her attachment is as strong as ever.

And she is a busy lady. In addition to raising five children, ages 12 to 18, she owns three Sylvan Learning Centers, in Homewood, Joliet and Bourbonnais.

“It’s about making time,” she said. “My brother and sister-in-law are big gardeners. I learned from them that gardening is one of the best things you can teach a kid. There’s nothing like watching something grow from a seed.”

Plus, she said, is there a better feeling than the one that comes from supplying hungry people with good food?

Indeed. Lucille Sanders, of South Holland, came for the free Monday night chicken cacciatorre dinner and left with a bagful of bell peppers, onions and beets.

“This is really nice, just beautiful,” Sanders said. “It’s wonderful that they do this. It makes my day.”

Dunlavy said one good turn often leads to another, as many of the parishioners have pitched in to help tend to the garden and to supply plants for it.

“People have been so respectful,” she said. “They are very honest about what they take. They say, ‘I came by here yesterday and took some broccoli.’ ”

Elizabeth Wakefield says that’s just the kind of parish St. Anne is.

She volunteers her time and talent to cook dinner some Mondays for the expected crowd of 100 to 150 people. On this night, she was making the chicken dish, salad and sugar cookies to go with the vanilla ice cream dessert. Leftovers, she said, would be delivered to local shut-ins.

“While I cook, I pray. Hopefully, people will be nourished physically as well as spiritually,” she said.

This year, Dunlavy and her crew of volunteer farmers are planning a fall festival, with pestos, salsas and local student musicians to entertain.

“It just keeps growing,” she said.



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