(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
Champaign's oldest residential neighborhood sits inside Church, Neil and Lynn streets.
Known as the Sesquicentennial Neighborhood, it’s also home to the Randolph Street Community Garden – one of 20,000 community gardens nationwide.
Community gardens are shared spaces where - residents can grow and harvest their own food .
Some community gardens charge a small rental fee and others, like this one, are rent free, though people are asked to donate $10 to offset a few expenses such as the portable, on-site restroom.
The garden is overseen by volunteer Dawn Blackman, who also runs Culture Club, a youth program at a church nearby.
“We have people who come to garden here who might not meet one another otherwise and who establish relationships and learn about because they are a part of the garden,” she said. “It also helps because so many people are I’m a renter, I don’t have a backyard, this is my backyard.”
Blackman became the garden’s steward in 2006 as a way to continue the club’s garden bed when the garden faced closure for lack of staff.
Today, she manages the garden beds, maintains equipment , organizes events and keeps up with the garden’s website.
The garden grew from 8 beds in 2006 to 32 beds today.
Neighbors near and far have staked claims on the beds.
Dawn’s youth group grows produce for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and other social service agencies.
Children from the Culture Club meet once a week to get a lesson in cooking and sharing.
Earlier this spring, children piled into the Church of the Bretheren building on nearby Neil Street for their weekly cooking session.
They donned paper hats and aprons and got busy chopping and dicing the produce that Dawn Blackman had ready for them.
It was soup day – last year, the group made more than 100 containers of soup.
“Well, today is Thursday. And on Thursday, any of the children who drop in to the Culture Club make soup for the Time Center," Blackman said. "We do this as our regular Thursday activity. In the summertime, we use the vegetables from our garden. In the winter time we have to go with canned and produce that we get from Eastern Illinois Food Bank. We want to learn, we want to teach the children is that there are people who need help and there are things that they can do to help people."
The kids move around the kitchen with ease and seem reluctant to move out.
The weekly cooking sessions too have more than one lesson.
“They’re learning skills they’ll be able to take forward with them in life. And they’re learning things that they can do at home,” Blackman said. “By the end of the season, they’ve made almost every kind of soup imaginable. And they can make them at home. And we’re not doing recipe soup where they have to do everything fine tuned. It’s not gourmet soup, but it’s really good soup.”
Between growing produce and cooking it, the kids are adding something else to the list: selling it.
Last year, they sold their first cash crop in front of a fish market down the street. The children who helped sell produce were allowed to keep 20 percent of their sales.
“My goal is to have a cash crop for the garden so the money goes to build new beds when we need new beds, replace new tools, get hoses,” Blackman said.
At the Randolph Street Garden, five-year-old Cody Sweet is learning to plant sunflowers. His mother, Clara, said that the garden grows more than food.
“I would say again with the giving and the receiving part of it, helping each other and helping his friends … and dig in the mud and get dirty if they’re not really used to getting dirty and just being able to help each other and learn from each other, pretty good life lessons,” she said.