Richard Nash’s hefty 6-foot-1 frame towers over the baby fruit and nut trees planted on two plots at 29th Street and Highland Avenue.
Even so, when this big man was first asked to care for the saplings this past summer, he worried the little trees might be more than he could handle.
Nash, 43, grew up a city boy. Sure, as a kid he had visited his grandmother on her farm in Harrisonville every summer, but he was there to play in the wide open spaces. He didn’t know a thing about caring for trees, especially not through one of Kansas City’s hottest summers on record.
But he knew one thing: “When God opens a door, step through,” even if you have no idea where it will take you. That lesson had helped him get his life on the right track.
So when a friend called him with the tree-watering job, he took it.
Nash made some bad choices after graduating from Central High School in Kansas City. He used cocaine, became addicted to crack and ended up homeless. Seven years ago, he was living on the street or with any family member or friend who would let him crash for a night.
On really cold nights, he sometimes stayed at one of the homeless shelters. Some had rules: Men who slept there had to pray in the chapel the next morning.
“I started visiting other churches trying to find myself,” Nash said.
One Sunday he wandered into Macedonia Baptist Church. He returned the next week, and the next. He met “a good woman,” Elberia Lee, whom he later married.
Macedonia, he said, was one of those doors that open. Through the church he learned about Metro Lutheran Ministries, or MLM, a nonprofit social service agency that has helped 350 homeless people move into permanent housing.
To get help from MLM, people must have jobs, and they have to stay employed.
“Working your way out of poverty and staying consistently employed is a very hard thing to do,” said Jim Glynn, the agency’s executive director.
When Nash came to MLM, he was working as a cook but couldn’t afford an apartment. Glynn liked him right off and MLM not only helped Nash get housing but used his story as part of its fundraising effort.
Jobs come and go, though. Eventually Nash, who had cooked off and on for several barbecue joints in town, was down to working part time as a cook for concessions at Kauffman Stadium. That wasn’t enough to keep up the rent and care for his family.
About that time, Glynn called with the watering job.
“I needed the job, and the trees need care,” Nash said.
They had been planted in Spring Valley Park on June 27 — late for planting season.
“It was already shaping up to be a really hot summer,” Glynn recalled. MLM had promised the United Way of Greater Kansas City — which was connected to the orchard through an urban beautification project — that it would look after the trees.
“But the only way to do that was to hire someone to water those trees,” Glynn said.
The first person he thought of was Nash.
“I knew Richard was unbelievably conscientious and reliable,” Glynn said. “I knew I needed someone reliable and strong so the program would go on.”
Nash didn’t know when he took the $12-an-hour job just how hot and dry the summer would be. He just figured he would be doing something to improve the community. The trees, he expected, someday would sag with plump plums, peaches, pears, apricots and pecans.
His wife called the orchard the Garden of Eden “because it could really change the community,” she said. “Imagine the kids coming here and picking fruit right off the trees.”
So, three days a week Nash went to the orchard, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. With a hundred feet of hose hooked to a fire hydrant, he soaked the base of each tree and then filled 24-gallon “gator bags” wrapped around each sapling. The bags, like inner tubes pierced with small holes, let water seep to the tree’s roots.
“It took me a full eight hours,” Nash said.
Esther Kershaw, president of the Boston Heights and Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, often saw him at work while she was walking her dog. “He was faithful,” she said.
Kershaw said the entire area is excited about the orchard. “We are trying to beautify our neighborhood,” she said. “This orchard plays a very big part.”
Beyond beauty, “this is going to provide a healthier lifestyle for the residents,” she said.
That won’t be for at least another few years, although when Nash walked the orchard recently to check on the trees, he found a few tiny pears.
Nash calls the trees his babies. He smiles as he stands, hands on hips, and swivels slowly, taking in a full view of the orchard.
Glynn said the next step in caring for the trees may require more experience in growing things, but that doesn’t mean MLM won’t have another job in the orchard for Nash come spring.