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Jackeline Covarrubias works in the garden June 17 at the Juan Diego Center in Omaha. Photo by Joe Ruff/Staff.

Garden designed to build community

Growing in a south Omaha yard this summer are a bunch of lush, leafy hopes.

Families’ hopes for greater self-reliance. Teachers’ hopes for suburban teens to glimpse what Jesus meant when he talked about welcoming strangers. Even hopes for a decent, juicy tomato.

That’s a lot to expect from a patch of dirt.

But Alan Vonnahme, who directs youth ministry for St. Gerald Parish in Ralston, has the optimism and patience of a onetime Iowa farm boy.

"The idea of a community garden is to develop community," he says, summing up the project that a few dozen of his St. Gerald teenagers launched last spring in partnership with a half-dozen Latino families who are new to the Omaha area.

The idea sprouted as Vonnahme was looking for ways to build a YDisciple youth ministry program, based on small-group faith formation and service projects.

The service projects are important, Vonnahme said, because the work helps students form their faith by doing, and provides them an opportunity to assist people in the community who face challenges they haven’t experienced.

Vonnahme said he was pondering the need for such a project at the same time a friend of his, Kevin Bailey, who runs the family-strengthening program at Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center, was looking for a way to, well, strengthen families.

A light bulb went on: Why not cooperate in starting a garden?

So early this spring Vonnahme and the teens from St. Gerald broke ground and built a pair of raised beds next to the Juan Diego Center, at 31st and Q streets. Meanwhile, Bailey recruited seven neighborhood women who are clients at the center — one for each day of the week — who tend the garden and reap the vegetables for their families’ tables.

"It’s a really humble start, but we’re encouraged," Bailey said. "…So far it’s been a huge success, more than I thought."

One of the women, Jackeline Covarrubias, a single mother of two pre-teens, said the plantings remind her of the huge garden her family had when she was a girl in Jalisco state, in west-central Mexico.

"A lot of us had known how to plant and have a garden, but it had been a while," she said, adding that she and her family have been in Omaha for about three years and have too little yard space at their home to grow vegetables. Now, they’ve begun harvesting fresh local produce.

And like every grower, Covarrubias already is thinking about next year’s garden.

"I want to make it bigger," she said – more ground, more variety, especially fruits.

Bailey and Vonnahme said they are thinking bigger, too, but what they also hope to expand are the relationships that have germinated – among the 50 or so families who are clients of the Juan Diego Center, and between those client-families and the teens of St. Gerald Parish.

Bailey said a larger garden could involve more families and even help supply the center’s food pantry. Vonnahme said he is thinking of other ways his youth groups could participate.

The aim is to open the teens’ eyes "to what our call as Catholic Christians should be," Vonnahme said, and to help them "see Jesus in all cultures."

"We don’t know where this is going," he said of the pilot project, but "it’s a good beginning."

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