Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ordinary Heroes: Amelia and Michael Howard of Eden Place

Image copyright L. Kathryn Grace, 2009
All rights reserved

They had the money to live almost anywhere. They chose to return and raise their children in the Southside Chicago neighborhood in which Amelia Howard grew up, a place now riffed with gang violence and fear. She became a teacher in a local school. He started a construction business. Together, they cleared a neighborhood vacant lot that had become a toxic waste dumping ground. It took them five years. In its place, they grew a (mostly) native plant garden, built a wetland and a prairie, and taught parents and their children how to grow their own food. They called it Eden Place.

Now city kids who know little or nothing of prairies, flowers and fruit trees can run barefoot through thick, mown grass, pick tomatoes from the vine, watch beans climb poles through the summer heat, and learn about the native plants that grew in Chicago long before buildings and concrete covered the landscape. Chicago Wilderness Magazine tells the story in Secret Garden, and you can learn more about the project at Eden Place Nature Center: An Urban Oasis. What you won't find on the latter page is any information about the Howards and their role in rescuing the land, how they dealt with fire-bombing gangs who tried to stop them, or their struggle to keep the center going. They don't appear to be the horn-tooting type, unless the horn is to draw attention to the need for more volunteers and cash to keep the center and its programs running.

With an eye on the present, the center actively promotes getting down and dirty in the garden. Children of all ages and their parents and teachers participate in nature classes and hands-on gardening, including picking and eating fruits and vegetables as they ripen. The center's eye is firmly fixed on the future as well. In addition to environmental and gardening classes for students of all ages, the center provides unpaid Environmental Management/Stewardship internships to undergraduate and graduate students.

This garden has helped families heal. It's helped them learn how to be healthy physically and socially. It's improved our quality of life.

Michael Howard as quoted on
Gardener's Supply Company's
2005 Garden Crusader Awards

For their courage, determination and perseverance to turn an illegal toxic waste dumping ground into a body, mind and soul-nourishing haven, this third Ordinary Heroes award is humbly offered to Amelia and Michael Howard, with gratitude. May they be blessed one-thousand fold.

My thanks to Twitterer @urbangarden for pointing me to this story.

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