SIUE Partners with Educator to Cultivate Tiny Children’s Garden in Washington Park

Sociology students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville have been turning their knowledge into action this semester by helping the Village of Washington Park build a community garden. The Tiny Children’s Garden is the brainchild of Washington Park resident and educator Derissa Davis, who purchased an empty lot with the idea of transforming it into a garden that would provide healthy foods for local residents and a safe learning space for children.

“I wanted the people in Washington Park to have access to fresh and healthy foods because there are limited choices of food selections in Washington Park,” said Davis. “The goal of the garden is to also give the children a place to come and feel safe and proud of their community. Having the children work in the garden will give them a sense of ownership in the community they live in.”

To help bring her vision to life, Davis contacted Connie Frey Spurlock, PhD, associate professor in the SIUE Department of Sociology and director of SIUE’s Successful Communities Collaborative, about possible partnership opportunities with SIUE. Frey Spurlock not only agreed to help, but she also recruited her students and colleagues to join the project.

The students in Frey Spurlock’s graduate-level Research Methods & Study Design in Sociology course have taken the lead on the project this semester. Working in committees, the students organized and publicized clean-up days on the lot, which helped to grow community excitement for the project while giving students opportunities to conduct research on what the community hopes the garden will accomplish. They also used apple taste testing, humor and games to encourage third- through fifth-graders at James Avant Elementary School in Washington Park to eat healthy and get involved at the garden.

Additionally, the SIUE IRIS Center supported the students’ work to create several digital pieces for the garden, including a website, Facebook page, maps and videos.

“It’s been amazing to be part of a co-created partnership that provided opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to collaborate across disciplines and campus boundaries,” explained Frey Spurlock. “By building projects like these into our courses, we improve accessibility to high impact community engagement practices, and students can experience compassionate spaces where they can practice and build on what they are learning in the classroom. As the lead class on this project, I have seen my students take personal and professional risks that have resulted in a more nuanced understanding of doing sociological research and more confidence in themselves as professionals.”

To further support the project, students in the Sociological Research Workshop course taught by Sandra Weissinger, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, developed research proposals for the garden, and the Sociological Perspective course, taught by Ezra Temko, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, prepared a fundraising guide. Students in the Construction Management and Senior Assessment course taught by Anne Werner, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Construction, created the project’s work plan, which involves a cost estimate, timeline and materials list.

“The partnership with SIUE has been the greatest thing thus far to happen with the garden,” said Davis. “We have been given so many resources and so much manpower to make the dream a reality.”

While development of the garden is ongoing, Davis’ vision is to have garden beds for fruits, vegetables and flowers, while also including a learning space for children. And with the recent purchase of four additional lots surrounding the garden, there will be plenty of space for the community to gather and enjoy time outside together.

“A long-term goal is to include reading, writing and science activities for the children gardeners,” explained Davis. “They will be able to come to the garden and build, read about planting, chart and graph their findings, and produce writing to be published on the garden’s website. I want the garden to be used as a safe place where children can learn and grow together.”

Even though the end of the semester has arrived, the SIUE faculty members have plans to involve future classes in the development of the garden to help ensure Davis’ vision for the garden is realized and to continue providing this unique learning opportunity for students.

“I have learned that what the media portrays Washington Park to be is much different than what Washington Park really is,” said SIUE graduate student Amy Yates. “Being in the community and seeing how excited they are about this project, it’s so far away from what the media would have you think. I have enjoyed seeing the kids getting involved in the garden and really feeling like we are making a difference in the community. The most important part of our involvement is making sure we are supporting and encouraging Derissa and helping her achieve her vision for the garden.”

Photo: SIUE students and community volunteers worked together in September to clean up the lot in Washington Park where the future Tiny Children’s Garden will be located.

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