Routine days roll along at Family Renew Community’s three housing sites for families striving to overcome homelessness. Each family lives in a modest, furnished apartment – rent-free and with no utility bills to pay. Children go to school, do homework and play with their friends. Parents go to work, socking away at least half their pay for their move to permanent housing and building skills for a better future.
But the families can also stop and smell the flowers, or watch the butterflies, or munch on homegrown veggies — thanks to volunteers and donors who have installed and tended gardens on all three residential campuses over the past three years.
Family Renew Community’s community gardens project got its start in 2018, after a local foundation that likes to remain anonymous designated part of its annual donation for creation of vegetable gardens on all three residential campuses for homeless families.
The Holly Hill campus, which has apartments for 14 families, was the first to get a garden. Missing Peace, a church-without-walls spiritual community, on a Sunday morning in March 2018 installed two large raised beds with built-in trellises, then planted spring veggies. The group, which came back in the spring of the following year to do a planting that included flowers as well, supplied all the materials. Subsequently, the garden caught the attention of Patti Young, a Family Nutrition Program instructor with the University of Florida/Volusia County Cooperative Extension Service. Patti, a master gardener in her spare time, visited each of Family Renew Community’s campus one a month to teach a class. She began to tend the Holly Hill garden, and often incorporated the harvest into the healthy meals she demonstrated for parents.
Family Renew Community tapped into the foundation donation to purchase a four-tower hydroponic garden system for its Daytona Beach apartments, which house 11 single mothers experiencing homelessness with their children. Engineering students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University installed the system on a Campuswide Day of Service in late March 2018. Paula Patenaude, the program assistant there, ran full steam ahead with vegetable gardening in the towers, and also planted a flower garden to attract butterflies elsewhere in the yard. Russ Royce, from the Volusia County Master Gardener Program, contributed labor and expertise.
Because of space constraints at its seven-unit DeLand residential campus, Family Renew initially in 2018 leased a plot for those families at the Spring Hill Community Garden down the street. Patti from the extension service, along with a Family Nutrition Program intern from Stetson University, started the garden with sweet potato seedlings. However, the off-site plot did not draw participation from the families. It was tended for the remainder of the lease by Stetson volunteers, and the produce was distributed to other community gardeners from the Spring Hill neighborhood. In the fall of 2019, Daytona State College students under the direction of Dr. Donald May took on the small-space gardening challenge at the DeLand campus as a service learning project. They designed and built a stair-step system of containers in which the DeLand families could grow vegetables of their choice. The materials were purchased with the money remaining in the 2017 foundation donation.
Eventually, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holly Hill raised bed garden slipped into neglect. In February 2021, students from the National Honor Society at Spruce Creek High School came to the rescue, clearing the beds of weeds and getting ready for a spring planting.