Abigail Meuse, 6, shouted with glee as she plucked a potato from the community garden at Sts. Rose and Clement Parish Wednesday afternoon.
“I found one that looks like Mickey Mouse,” the proud St. Rose of Lima first grader said as she held up a coyly shaped spud for Rev. Fr. Edward Wilson Jr. to see.
But more than potatoes are growing in the garden, located behind the church at 111 Long Street.
Generosity, thoughtfulness and dignity are blooming in abundance, as St. Rose schoolchildren and volunteer parishioners harvested organic vegetables, which will be donated to Westbay Marketplace, a food pantry on Buttonwoods Avenue.
The biggest bulk of the harvest is yet to come, said Master Gardener and retired science teacher Barbara Melone, so their grand total of donations this season will be well over 1,000 pounds. They donated about 800 pounds last year, and “thousands” more since 2004, the year parishioners started the garden.
“It’s really fun,” Abigail said, her hands covered in soil. “And it makes me feel very good because I get to work with my friends to do all this stuff for the poor.”
Abigail, along with nearly 40 other students in kindergarten through eighth grade, are members of Volunteers Impacting Neighbors Engaging Students (VINES), an initiate established at the school four years ago to inspire works of charity. The group meets every Wednesday after school from 2:30 to 4 p.m., with children eager to dig deep because they know the food will benefit people in need. In the case of inclement weather, they meet at the church and work on other service projects.
A handful of seventh graders expressed their emotions about their efforts.
“It makes me happy to help people who don’t have as much as we do,” said Faith Alves, 12, who has been part of VINES since its inception.
Maxim Picard, 12, is one of the newest members, as he joined VINES this year.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It feels good to help people.”
Other students agreed, including Jessica Gilman, 12, and Russell White, 12.
“I like how everyone works together and how we know we’re helping out the community,” Jessica said, while Russell added, “We’re giving food to people and it makes them feel like they’re loved.”
His younger brother, Jake, 11, a sixth grader, enjoys being part of the group, as well.
“Helping people with everyone is fun,” he said.
Not only are they helping those who are less fortunate, the older students assist younger children planting and harvesting.
“Instead of doing it for them, we show them how to do it so they know how to do it next time,” said seventh grader Kyle Buchanan, 12.
As junior high students snipped tromboncino, an Italian squash that is able to grow up to three feet long, kindergartener Madelynn Iozzi, 5, yanked carrots out of the ground, while her classmates Haylie McMahon, 5, and Isabel White, 5, gathered to collect sweet potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, Swiss chard and more before planting spinach, turnip, kale, beet and radish seeds.
“I have so much respect for the kids,” said Beth White, who along with Penny Alves serves as a VINES coordinator. “They could be home watching TV, playing video games and hanging out with their friends, but they are aware of what the greater purpose is.”
Alves pointed out that while the garden dominates their community work, it is only a part of what they do through VINES. They volunteer for other projects, such as working with the developmentally disabled at the Trudeau Center, visiting the elderly at West Bay Manor, putting together care packages for families in shelters at McAuley Village, and providing Christmas cookies to St. Rita’s Parish.
The children also participate in the Art in the Garden program, which encourages them to paint and draw based on what they observe in the garden. Since it’s lush with sunflowers and hydrangea, as well as strawberries, blueberries and watermelons, they have plenty of objects to depict.
Some students opt to illustrate insects, as butterflies and ladybugs often visit the garden. The flowers also attract pollinators like honeybees.
“A lot of children fear bees and it’s an opportunity for the children to see them at work,” Fr. Wilson said. “They do great things that are helpful.”
He acknowledged that students are also busy bees, as they give their all to the garden for the benefit of others.
“We believe that it’s in giving that we receive,” he said.
And as a retired science teacher, Melone said the garden and all its creatures offer the perfect science lesson. She frequently includes educational instruction while they plant, pick and paint.
“I love working with the kids,” said Melone. “They planted the entire garden, starting in April.”
As she stood in the center of the garden, the late summer sun shining above, Melone looked around and smiled.
“God gave us a perfect day,” she said. “What more could you ask for?”