Some are chatting and laughing as they catch up on what’s happening in the neighbourhood. Others are parading past long tables laden with baskets of fresh picked vegetables. Children pop tiny red tomatoes in their mouths, remarking how they taste like candy. There are platters of broad beans about to pop from their pods and squashes all plump and shiny. The fragrance of aromatic herbs fills the room. The gardeners are bursting with pride at the fruits of their labour.
Despite the hot, dry summer, the community gardens behind Lotherton’s four apartment buildings and ring of townhouses flourished thanks to volunteers of all ages who tended the plots, planting, weeding and watering. The crop was plentiful and the last of it rounds out the harvest lunch for the volunteer urban farmers. What’s left goes home with the gardeners.
But the vegetable patch nurtures not just body, but soul.
The seeds were planted by local residents with the help of United Way Toronto and ANC (Action for Neighbourhood Change.) It’s a grassroots agency working with people in all 13 of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods where residents are revitalizing their communities from the inside out. Since ANC came to Lotherton about five years ago, the community has undergone dramatic changes, said Naidine Sarkodie, who’s lived there for 17 years and raised five children in the neighbourhood. Some of her kids still live there and are raising their children in what she described as a vibrant, lively family place. But the grandmother remembers when tenants used to pass each other in the hallways without so much as a grunt of acknowledgement.
“The majority of us lived in the community but didn’t socialize or communicate,” Sarkodie said of old times in the culturally diverse community. These days, residents — many of them from Asia, China, Vietnam and Jamaica — greet each other with hugs, warm handshakes and smiles. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen,” Sarkodie admitted.
She credits ANC and staff like Tara Bootan, the agency’s community engagement coordinator, for helping revive the isolated community plopped in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood off Caledonia Rd. The garden was an innovative solution for residents living in the food desert located far from grocery stores that are expensive and hard to get to. A United Way Resident Action Grant made it possible. More recently, Lotherton also joined with Food Share, another UWT agency offering once a week deliveries of fresh fruits and veggies at the door.
It’s all good, said Sarkodie. “ANC opened opportunity for everyone to be involved in their community, particularly the kids. Our children and grandchildren are benefitting from what we do. It’s our legacy. It’s a blessing.”
Other resident-led programs have been established including seniors’ yoga, arts and crafts as well as knitting. As part of the Family Tree program, residents adopt and care for their own fruit trees. The basketball and tennis courts have been repaved and are popular with youth. So are the programs for young people. An annual community festival attracted about 600 people this summer.
Lisa Baker, the mother of Shakura, 14, Affernia, 8 and Y’anna, 2, moved to the neighbourhood in 2004 because she “fell in love with the community.” Over the years, she’s watched the neighbourhood change. “It’s a good thing,” said Baker who loves to roll up her sleeves and volunteer. It makes Lotherton a better place to live and sets a good example for her children, she said.
Matthew Laurin began volunteering in 2007. Since then, the 18-year-old has chalked up more than 100 hours of community service which will look good on his high school diploma. He was among the gardeners out on a recent Saturday morning preparing the beds for winter because volunteering “feels good,” said the Grade 12 student at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute.
Neezam Ali pitches in because he wants to do something constructive for his neighbourhood which he said once “lacked unity, and the spirit of friendliness, progressiveness and motivation.” That was then.
Now it’s become more close knit, thanks to residents and ANC staff, he said adding it feels “awesome,” to have made a difference as a volunteer. He’s also pleased so many others have stepped up to the plate. “As long as I’m living in the community, I will contribute and volunteer to make it better.”
And it’s that spirit of giving back that has transformed the community, said Bootan.
“Lotherton is a different place thanks to people who live here and United Way. “
To make a donation, go to unitedwaytoronto.com or call 416-777-2001.
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