GROWING LESSONS: Westside Bloomington Garden Seeks to Help Young People Grow Skills

Reposted from The Pantagraph

Story and Photos by D. Jack Alkire

BLOOMINGTON — A community garden on the city’s west side aims to offer a place for young people to learn life skills and professional development through gardening apprenticeships.

Caleb Phillips tends Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest, a nonprofit operating under the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation. He oversees the youth who have signed up to apprentice in the garden, a program he said is meant to help them gain essential professional skills needed to succeed outside of school.

Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest welcomes youth apprentices on Illinois Street in Bloomington.

“How can we help kids become life ready instead of college ready?” he said. He said that the apprenticeship program helps youth transition to adulthood.

“There’s a lot of good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree,” he said. Phillips received a doctorate from Lincoln Christian University and wrote his thesis on developing leaders in impoverished communities.

Apprentices get to take food from the garden on a weekly basis, Phillips said. They can work 100 hours throughout the summer, earning $1,000 or a scaled amount for those who work fewer hours.

Apprentices and volunteers help weed garden beds at Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest in Bloomington.

Phillips said his apprentices learn punctuality, responsibility and communication skills. He said they regularly communicate through a phone app and contact him if there are any issues with rides or availability. Phillips said there are always opportunities for problem solving and leadership.

Besides apprentices, the young workers can be volunteers from local organizations, and some are sent to Sunnyside as part of their weekly chores, Phillips said. They have fun at the garden, he said. “They like razzing each other,” he said as some of the kids joked.

Sunnyside was founded in 2016 by Jan Turner and her child Col Connelly. Turner said that Connelly started the garden as part of an entrepreneurship class in high school — despite not knowing much about gardening.

“(Connelly) brought me in like, ‘Mom, can you help me?'” Turner said chuckling.

Turner said that the community rallied around her and Connelly to help them build 10 garden beds. “That first day, we got everything mulched and composted,” Turner said.

Since then, according to the garden’s website, they have added almost 5,000 square feet of garden bed, 60 fruit trees, 400 square feet of asparagus and increased their berry production. 

A peach grows at Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest in Bloomington, Illinois. Sunnyside planted peach trees in 2017 and has added cherry and apple trees since.

Phillips said that produce is both donated and sold. Sunnyside donates to Bread For Life Co-op, Eastview Christian Church and Center for Hope. Products are sold through Market Wagon, a home delivery service providing goods from local farms throughout the Midwest. In addition, Sunnyside sells produce to Destihl for its brew hall and restaurant.

This is how Sunnyside affords their apprentices, Phillips said. “About half (of funding) comes through produce sales and about half comes through grants and generous donations,” he said.

Sunnyside accepts volunteers Tuesday and Friday mornings, and Saturday appointments. 

Illinois Prairie Community Foundation serves as fiscal sponsor for the Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest. If you would like to support the fund’s mission of providing fresh, organic produce to low-income families in West Bloomington and facilitating learning opportunities for children and adults through gardening, harvesting, and marketing food grown on site, using sustainable practices., donate online.

Top Photo Caption: Caleb Phillips, second from right, helps apprentices remove lettuce that has already bolted and must be composted at Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest in Bloomington.