By Ris Twigg
Hilltop’s Highland Youth Garden is getting a major gift under its trees this holiday season.
The garden is set to receive $20,000 from Columbus City Council in an effort to expand its programming and support the organization’s long-term sustainability. Council approved the ordinance in support of the garden during a Nov. 18 meeting.
“If we want to sustain this garden, we need to help them with stability,” said councilwoman Priscilla Tyson, who sponsored the ordinance as part of a joint county-city Local Food Action Plan that aims to increase food education, access and affordability throughout Franklin County.
“This garden has been in existence for 10 years and so it certainly has demonstrated the capacity to grow and assist that particular community,” she said.
Rachel DeNoewer, executive director of the garden, said the $20,000 will help expand the garden’s partnerships throughout the Hilltop community, including partnering with more food pantries and increasing the number of schools served on the Westside.
In addition, DeNoewer said the Hilltop can be seen as a food desert. The surplus of money would help the garden get more of its produce out for free to folks who may not have access, she said.
“And hopefully — and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves — but there’s other vacant lots in the Hilltop so it could be an opportunity for us to create more gardens.”
DeNoewer, who was hired in October as the garden’s first-ever executive director, doesn’t just see the $20,000 as an investment in only the garden, though.
“It’s a direct investment in the Hilltop community, which, you know, sometimes has been looked over,” she said. “But they’re investing in us. The people who are in the Hilltop everyday.”
Those dedicated volunteers are who DeNoewer and Tyson attribute the garden’s blooming success.
Volunteers focus on youth education and youth development. They host after-school garden programs, create S.T.E.M. lesson plans for teachers, teach Hilltop youth how to grow food, offer free, garden-fresh meals and much, much more.
One of the garden’s most notable programs, “Green Teens”, gives Hilltop teens the opportunity to gain new skills, both in gardening and in business. Each summer, teens get to sell what they grow in the garden at the Westgate Farmer’s Market, giving them a chance to connect with their neighbors in the Hilltop community.
During the school year, the garden serves about 375 students from Highland Elementary Schools, the Educational Academy for Boys and Girls and the Columbus Bilingual Academy. During the summer, the garden supports about 200 students each week.
“A lot of people just think, ‘Oh, a youth garden, you’re just gardening.’ We’re much more than that,” DeNoewer said. “We’re mentors to some of these kids. We help them with school lessons. We have an ear (for them) if they need to tell us stuff.”
Volunteer opportunities slow down during the winter DeNoewer said, but in the summer residents can help tend the garden alongside kids from the Hilltop.
“When you see the satisfaction and the happiness in the kids’ faces when they come to the garden and they know that they can just run around and they can play in the dirt and they can find out where their food comes from … Just to be a part of that, it’s truly humbling,” DeNoewer said.