By Matt Marn
Over four years of sweat, funding, and hard work from people all across the community has finally begun to bloom for everyone to see. And what a sight it is.
Michelle Dionisio, President and CEO of Benevilla, took the stage to welcome visitors and volunteers to the grand opening of the Surprise Community Garden Friday evening, October 26.
She told the crowd the garden had been a joint project of Benevilla’s, together with the city of Surprise and Rio Salado College. The main goal, Dionisio said, would be to bring generations together, and to do good work in the community.
The Surprise Community Garden is located in the city of Surprise at Lizard Run Park, next to Benevilla’s main campus. It will serve as an important space for area residents, young students and organizations to learn about growing food in a harsh desert environment. The garden will also provide an opportunity to grow fresh produce to help battle hunger in the community.
The garden will hold 37 beds of soil. While some have yet to be built, many more are ready and available for adoption or donation. Each bed has a dedicated water line and specially blended soil. You can also lease a bed, or use a smaller vine circle to flex your green thumb.
No matter how you plan to use the Surprise Community Garden, rest assured you will meet wonderful people, have a great support system of other gardeners, and help this project bring people in the community together from all generations.
Keva Womble, the Philanthropy Project Manager of the Arizona Community Foundation, told the audience her organization was proud to be partnered with Benevilla in this “Community for All Ages” Initiative,” so together, they can help communities grow better able to address critical issues and promote well-being for every generation.
The event welcomed to the stage representatives from the city of Surprise, Rio Salado College, and other groups who worked hard to make this event and garden possible. One such woman was Cherie Czaplicki, Chair of the Surprise Community Garden, and herself a Master Gardener.
“I have to day, tonight makes my heart sing,” Czaplicki said. “I have met with these people for three years, and I’ve never seen a warmer or more knowledgeable group of folks, right here in my own community.”
She said she felt at home around Benevilla and its devoted volunteers, many of whom also worked for years on this garden.
“I love working with volunteers,” Czaplicki said. “I’ve been a Master Gardener for almost 20 years, and I’ve learned how wonderful volunteers can be in the community. It’s kind of telling when I walked into the conference room in Benevilla, and I see my mantra on their wall, the words of Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
Dionisio and the volunteers who worked so hard on the garden also made sure to recognize the members of the local business community that donated materials and manpower to help turn the garden from an idea to the reality the crowd came to celebrate.
“Everything – literally everything you see in this garden has been donated,” said Bill Grigg, a Community Garden volunteer. “We have a lot of volunteers – and remember, this is a community of all ages. Community means everyone. The business community also stepped up in a big way to make the garden a reality and bring it to life.”
Finally, Dionisio took a moment to recognize a special young man who also helped in getting the garden where it is now. She brought up Anthony Sarabia, an Eagle Scout who made his work in the garden his Eagle Scout project.
He built and installed the garden’s vine circles – smaller plots of land also available for lighter gardening. While he was given the designs by another volunteer, Sarabia built the vine circles himself.
“They are beautifully done, and they’ll be there for a very long time,” Dionisio said. “I will say, he’s a very talented artist, and he sold his photography work to raise the money for the materials he needed.”
After the ceremony, Richard Sarabia, Scout Leader and father of Eagle Scout Anthony, expressed how impressed he was by his son, and how much this project helped him grow as a young man.
“We got an email on a possible Eagle Scout project, and my son responded,” he said. “He raised the funds, built the vine circles, and brought in volunteers to help install them. I didn’t know how much my son would have to come out of his shell to accomplish this job. And the rest of the troop… It was a lot of hard work, it was character building.”
Scout Leader Sarabia would certainly like to stay involved with the garden, and the concept is something he really appreciates.
“I mean, there are 22 beds left to fill, and the boys have the muscle,” he said with a smile. “Moving dirt is their specialty now.”
The garden is already in good hands, with many plots already in use by skilled and devoted gardeners. Curt Wegmann was the first owner of a plot, and with over 50 years of gardening experience, his plot is already full and beautiful, drawing a crowd.
“All the work that went into this was incredible,” Wegmann said. “Two months ago, there was nothing here. Now I come out here every other day; to take care of it, water it, fertilize it… It’s not work. It’s just such a pleasure. Life is too short, enjoy it. Make the most of it.”
On the other end of the garden from the experienced gardener Curt is a troop of Girl Scouts, none of whom have ever had gardens – and who are very excited now that the plants are starting to sprout.
Lisa Miller, the leader of Girl Scout Troop 902, said the Silver Award is the highest award that can be earned by a Girl Scout Cadet.
“For the Silver Award, you need 50 hours of community service, and it has to serve a need in the community. They saw a need, and they decided to grow food in the garden to donate to a local food bank.”
Miller said the 12 girls in the troop have been working on their garden bed – and the garden itself – from the ground level.
“’The Community for All Ages’ really is for all ages,” she said. “There are all types of age ranges. They’ve had a lot of help from the people who know what they’re doing. It helps to have gardeners who know what to grow in Arizona.”
Miller’s daughter and troop member, Madison, really enjoys working on the garden with her troop.
“We go to the meetings, and get great pointers on what to do and how to grow,” Madison said. “It’s a chance for extra community service, and this troop is all about community service. I think the best part is being with fellow Girl Scouts, and knowing the vegetables will be in good hands when we donate them to the food bank.”
Dionisio was also pleased with the turnout for the grand opening.
“When you bring a community together, everyone brings their own skills and talents, and it can turn into something great,” she said.
So far, the goal of creating a community garden for all ages appears to be off to a great start. Stop by Benevilla’s main campus and see it yourself, or if you are interested in starting your own plot in the garden, or helping with the volunteer work, contact Vicki White at (623) 584-4999 or Cherie Czaplicki at (623) 910-5239.