Less than two years ago, it was an empty lot sullied by prostitution, gun violence and drug deals.
On Saturday, the space near Eighth Street and Troost Avenue was vibrant with college kids determined to help turn the northeast neighborhood around.
About 20 William Jewell College students from the Pryor Leadership Studies Program spent hours in the dirt building a community garden that sunny afternoon.
“Our goal is to bring reconciliation to this neighborhood that has been desolate for so long,” said Victoria Litardo, a senior. “I think being able to walk by a beautiful place will help bring the community back to life and allow people to dream again.”
The garden is part of the students’ senior project, “Grow Paseo,” in which they are collaborating with Hope Faith Ministries, a non-profit organization that serves the needs of homeless people in Kansas City.
When finished, it will feature raised vegetable beds, berry bushes, corn stalks, a pumpkin patch, flowers and a fountain in the center. There will also be a pergola in the back, which will shade picnic tables and a grill.
In addition to the garden, the students also have implemented cooking classes at Hope Faith for neighborhood children.
In January, the students at the college in Liberty chose the garden as their final leadership project after a few of them met Hope Faith volunteer Joy Snyder. She had mentioned her goal of creating a healthier lifestyle for disadvantaged people living near the ministry and her vision inspired them.
Not only have the kids dedicated most of their free time to perfecting the garden and the cooking classes, but hours of raising money have paid off with $12,000 for equipment and tools. Plus, several area construction and landscaping businesses have donated their time and expertise.
“These kids have exceeded my expectations and made this garden into something I never, ever could have done on my own,” said Snyder. “I actually don’t know what I would have done without them.”
On Saturday, the kids spent a large portion of the time building a wall in front of the garden site. Although it was a somewhat grueling process, the kids had a blast.
“I have no experience building gardens or walls, so I am learning on the fly,” Tyler Bullis, 21, said with a laugh. “I’ve been picking up tips from the construction crews, which has actually been a lot of fun. I might not ever build a wall again, but these are the type of skills that I think it’s important to have because you really never know when you’ll need them.”
Down the street at Hope Faith Ministries, six of the students gave a two-hour cooking class to neighborhood children. Lessons throughout the year will focus on cooking, nutrition, kitchen safety and gardening.
“Our goal is that these kids will take this knowledge home with them and implement it into their own household,” said Tara Moreland, one of the students teaching the cooking class. “And we’d also like to see this program expand into other homeless shelters in the area. It would be nice to see it grow, even after our class graduates.”
Hope Faith plans to maintain the project once the students are finished.
Three houses next to the community garden have already been turned into transitional homes for people who will manage the garden, and interns at Hope Faith Ministries will take over the cooking classes.
“The community has rallied behind these students because they really want this project to succeed,” said Kevin Shaffstall, director of the Pryor Center at William Jewell. “It has been amazing and inspiring to watch. I couldn’t be more proud.”