Opportunities Garden to bring fresh choices, community action

Alex Perla, 8, second from right, works to keep up with the big boys from Woodward Academy as they fill the bedding plots at Opportunities Garden in May.

The truth of the old saying, “Many hands make light work,” was borne out again this spring with the founding of Opportunities Garden, a small plantation on land donated by Crossroads Church in Perry and developed with materials and labor from many local individuals and businesses.

The garden takes its name from the New Opportunities Dallas County Family Development Center, which shares space at Crossroads Church on Perry’s north side. New Opportunities is best known in Perry and Dallas County for operating the Perry-Area Food Pantry.

“The Opportunities Garden started with an $1,125 grant from United Way,” said Karen Ventura, executive director of New Opportunities. “That paid for the fencing. Then Rainbow International wanted to get involved, and they assisted by building the beds and buying the lumber.”

Susan Day, chief marketing officer for Rainbow International, said her company is always ready to support local, grassroots projects such as the Opportunities Garden. Day took a hands-on approach as well, helping build the beds and plant the seeds.

If Iowa has one thing in abundance, it is soil, but Ventura said several arrangements for soil donations fell through until Karen Mertz of Perry stepped up and bought a large quantity of Mulch Mart dirt.

“She is such a sweet lady,” Ventura said. “She comes into the center quite often and says, ‘What do you need, Karen? What do you need?’ and then she’ll come back with shampoo, toothpaste and food. She is so kindhearted, like many of our volunteers and donors.”

Other donations followed in due course: Hulgan Plumbing and Heating Co. supplied the hoses for watering the beds, and Hy-Vee gave seeds and plants.

“The garden went from a dream project this spring to having produce sprouting today,” said Larry Vodenik, volunteer at the New Opportunities garden and Hy-Vee event planner. “There were no funds for this project, so everything has come from donations of cash, materials and time.”

By the middle of May, it was high time to plant. That was when a team of high school students from Woodward Academy, led by treatment staff members Matt Ruiz and Evan Gibbs, rolled up in a bus, rolled up their sleeves and turned a ton of soil into half-a-dozen tidy plot beds.

Man does not live by bread alone, but bread sure helps. The gardeners who labored, including the Woodward Academy crew, Vodenik and Ventura’s young sons, Alex, 8, and Kris, 6, were fortified on planting day by pizza donated by Casey’s, submarine sandwiches courtesy of Subway and water from Hy-Vee.

A month on, and things are coming up nicely at Opportunities Garden.

“We have the hard part completed,” Vodenik said. “Now we are looking for a few volunteers to help water and weed for one or two hours a week” We still have a few items on our wish list, so cash donations would be appreciated as well. What we would like is to get the word out to our community about this great program for Perry’s families in need.”

Ventura is grateful for the strong showing of community support.

“Larry has been so gracious to go on the radio and promote the project and to the other groups, too, that he goes to. And of course Crossroads is a great partner, too. They donated the land.”

She said gardening advice will be provided by volunteers Day, Dave Oliveira and Margaret Harden, the “three main gardeners who will lead the project.”

“We have two missions,” Ventura said. “The first is providing fresh produce to the Perry-Area Food Pantry and, second, bringing people together to promote self-sufficiency in growing their own vegetables.”

The New Opportunities agency provides services to seven central Iowa counties, Ventura said, and the idea of a community garden has really caught on in Carroll County, where they have 110 plots and a waiting list of community members wanting to plant.

“Our four little plots are a great start,” she said. “This is a garden now to benefit the food pantry, but we hope in the future to do more of a community garden, where people in the community can have their own plots and do their own planting. It will be an educational experience for our families. We have a lot of Head Start moms, for instance, who don’t have any room to grow their own vegetables, so this will be a good way to promote nutrition and self-help at the same time.”

Ventura said volunteers are still needed “to help make it pretty” with mulch and other materials. Volunteer labor and donations are always welcome, she said.

The New Opportunities Dallas County Family Development Center offers a wide variety of programs, including Head Start and Early Head Start, addiction prevention and treatment and other health services, WIC and food pantry, heating and weatherization services and many others. Many of their clients are elderly. Virtually all are low-income residents of Dallas County.

“I feel like sometimes people in the community don’t see us as an asset,” Ventura said, “but we are an asset to the community. Not only do we assist families with our services but we educate families. They use our services for a while, but then later on they finish school, and their lives change. It’s a process. They might be going through hardships and trying to get through tough situations and yes, they getting this stuff for free, but you know what? The crucial thing to keep in mind here is the vision to change the lives of these people. For them to do good things, for them to be successful, for them to give back to the community.”


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