Glencoe Union Church and Chicago’s La Casa Norte Grow Pride and Pumpkins

Gardening is an exercise in optimism – you plant, water, and cross your fingers that something grows.

For the 16 young men living at the La Casa Norte’s Solid Ground residential facility in Chicago, that sunny perspective is nearly as foreign as finding fresh food on the dinner table.

When a volunteer group from Glencoe Union Church identified Solid Ground as a program they wanted to support, they explored how best to help. In touring the facility’s grounds last summer, GUC member Kathy Deveny couldn’t help but notice residents’ humble but inspirational effort to grow potted basil and tomatoes.

Located in Humboldt Park, Solid Ground is described as being in a food desert—an area devoid of fresh fruit and vegetable grocers.

“The garden, as it existed, was very primitive,” Deveny says. “I asked if we could work with them to build something that might be an ongoing project.”

With approval from La Casa Norte’s leadership, Deveny brought in renowned organic gardener Jeanne Pinsof Nolan to create a layout. Fundraising kicked off with Church pancake breakfasts and raffles. Monies raised and other donations allowed the project to get underway, and in April GUC volunteers prepped the space with an intensive spring cleaning.

The Church’s master carpenter and building manager Peter Ray stepped in next. Working with Solid Ground residents, Ray led the group in building two sizable planter boxes and a cedar bench. Future plans include a tool shed for the rehabilitated courtyard space.

“It was an adventure for the guys,” Ray says. “They got involved in some of the cutting, using the tools. I think they got a big kick out of it.”

Solid Ground program manager Joe Hankey agrees, calling the project an opportunity for his residents to learn new skills and take ownership of the garden.

“There was a lot of conversation about what kind of crops we wanted to grow,” Hankey explains. “We decided on a varying rotation of vegetables, including pumpkins. People were very adamant about pumpkins.”

Confirming that his residents are “in it for the long haul,” Hankey optimistically predicts this garden will transform Solid Ground. And come November, there’ll likely be a lot of jack-o-lanterns on display.