July 11 2007 12:00 AM
Growing more than food: (From left) Volunteer Candias Cole, garden camp coordinator Alison Gunden, NorthWest Initiative food systems project coordinator Katie Olender and garden camper Mikailah Jackson work in the student garden at Riddle Elementary

There, Advent House Ministries reaches out to those in the Lansing area who are most vulnerable — the homeless, those perilously close to homelessness, children, veterans, the illiterate and many others.

Susan Cancro, executive director of Advent House, oversees a skeleton staff as they, along with a diverse collection of faith-based and secular organizations, provide hot meals throughout the weekend when other shelters close. Advent House provides temporary shelter and short-term housing for those who have fallen into poverty.

They also provide job and life skills training. They do not proselytize but allow their work and advocacy to speak for itself. “If you give people a place to learn that is safe and not critical, where there is no shame, then as an adult you can take that and run with it,” Cancro says. {mosimage}

The biggest hurdle in their way is often financial. Individual donors make a significant contribution, and one of the largest fundraisers for the organization is the annual Westside Garden Festival.

Just a few blocks southwest of Advent House, Brad and Terri Haas-Wittman have offered their own garden as a destination for the festival. The backyard garden is mostly a dog-friendly container, with at least 16 large planters lining the space. A small “kitchen” garden, with basil, chives, and tomatoes lies directly behind the house. Another space to the side of the house, filled with hostas and ferns, feels “woodsy,” Terri says. “I like groupings of things and patterns,” she says.  “We've created different environments around the yard.”

About 12 houses down and across the street, Nicole Zacharda will welcome touring festival guests into her garden, where she recently installed a pond with a cascading waterfall.  Tucked into a corner, the pond holds tropical fish and is ornamented on its surface with water lettuce and water hyacinth. Arrowhead forces the eye upward toward a rocky backdrop with an interspersion of vegetation that includes bleeding heart, an ostrich fern and three slender bamboo shoots.

Zacharda loves her Westside neighborhood. She says the diverse community shares gardening as a common bond, and one of the perks of living in such a place is the ability to share plants and tips with neighbors. “Gardening brings us together,” she says.

Denise Chrysler lives eight blocks south and two blocks east.  She will show her extraordinarily abundant vegetable garden to festival participants. The jungle-like explosion of vegetation is organized into four raised beds that are 3 feet wide by more than 15 feet long. The zesty smell of tomato plants dominates where 13 of them, in eight varieties, grow up through their tubular fences.  Red plastic mulch helps the fruit to ripen with just the correct amount of reflected sunlight.

Head two blocks north and three blocks east to find Riddle Elementary School, where  summer garden campers gather daily at 9 a.m. to water the vegetable plots. They will welcome festival guests Sunday with refreshments from the garden, brewing mint tea and talking about what they learned with Katie Olender.

Olender, food systems coordinator for NorthWest Initiative, explains that the garden offers nutritious options to students growing up in an area with few grocery stores.

Okra, peppers, eggplant, leafy greens, corn, onions, tomatoes and more escape their beds and sprout in walkways. 

“This is providing food for children and for them to have the confidence to come and get into the dirt,” Olender says.

And it has also helped connect the neighborhood.  Olender says parents not only volunteer but return curious, sometimes asking for tips, advice or ideas. “We've had lots of neighbor and community support,” she says.

 Westside Garden Festival 2007

To benefit Advent House Ministries

Sunday, July 15

2 p.m. - 6 p.m.


(517) 485-4722