MATTOON -- The Fit-2-Serve ministry's community gardening project has four extra sets of helping hands this summer through the federal AmeriCorps community service program.
AmeriCorps interns Lee Hearns of Chicago, Virginia Johnson of St. Louis, and Alyssa Miller and Molly Masulis, both of Mattoon, are helping tend the two community gardening plots. They are also recruiting and working with volunteers, taking produce to market, and promoting this gardening project.
"We have now just completed our first week together and are looking forward to aggressively engaging our work for the next seven weeks," said Fit-2-Serve Executive Director Bill Duey. "I cannot imagine a more excellent team to engage the various projects we have planned."
Fit-2-Serve planted its first garden last spring adjacent to its ministry building at the northeast corner of Lafayette Avenue and 14th Street. The second garden was planted this spring on the grounds of the city's waste water treatment plant on South Fifth Place.
Hearns, who plans to major in welding this fall at Lake Land College, said he already has learned a lot about tilling, planting and other gardening work from Fit-2-Serve volunteer Mavis Bagby, a longtime gardener.
"It's been fun. I have worked in the garden every day," Johnson said. The recent Concordia University graduate, who was one of Duey's students there, said she has learned a lot in the gardens, such as when and how to properly pick fruits and vegetables.
The interns are working with volunteers of all ages. They led Salvation Army day camp youths in washing, drying, weighing and packaging lettuce at the Fit-2-Serve building during a rainy Wednesday morning. Then, they taught Big Brothers Big Sisters youths how to make salad dressing.
"Little kids like to help. They feel good about themselves whenever they get the opportunity to help other people. It's a good teaching tool," said Masulis, who is a second-grade teacher at Arland D. Williams Elementary School in Mattoon.
Hearns said they are trying to get whole families, children included, involved with volunteering at the community gardening plots.
The interns also are working with individual adult volunteers, as well as those from churches, the Mattoon Area PADS homeless shelter, and other groups. Masulis said she has enjoyed getting to know PADS' guests and helping them put their personal strengths and talents to work in the community.
Miller, who is a microbiology major at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said produce from the two gardens will be sold at the Mattoon Farmers Market and local supermarkets.
Raising and selling produce are part of the project's goals of developing a food market to help the local economy and designing service learning projects for poverty alleviation, Miller said.
The community gardening project's long-term goals are to farm a total of five gardens and create a Sustainable Food Center by 2020. The project has received grand funding from the Lumpkin Family Foundation.
Duey said the project also has been blessed by AmeriCorps providing two full-time intern positions for 2015-16, with renewals for both summer and full-year terms for three years.
Volunteers are invited to help tend to the gardens at 1320 Lafayette Ave. and South Fifth Place from 8 to 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; and 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. More information and a gardening blog are posted at fit-2-serve.net.