2:00 P.M. EDT July 8, 2011 | OMAHA, Neb. (UMNS)
The community garden planted beside Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha, Neb., is aptly named the “Big Garden.” Produce is shared with Bhutanese refugees, Nebraska AIDS Project clients, church attendees, an area Alzheimer’s facility and even hungry rabbits. UMNS web-only photos courtesy of the Nebraska Annual (regional) Conference.
The lettuce waiting to be served at the weekly Nebraska AIDS Project meal is fiercely protected. It has survived rain, heat, weeds and the ever-present hungry rabbits.
Its protector is also its cultivator. Kevin Dorenbach is the head gardener of The Big Garden site, tucked in a grassy patch behind the Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha.
Nine raised beds are full of leafy, green plants that have been neatly organized and weeded, watered and tended by Dorenbach’s watchful eye and resourcefulness.
The lettuce is just one crop that has benefited from Dorenbach’s clever gardening designs. Chicken wire is draped carefully over the broccoli to give it a chance to bounce back from the latest rabbit attack. The corn has been placed to help the squash growing in the center of its protective leaves.
“That’s one of the things about gardening," Dorenbach says while describing his rabbit-proofing attempt, “It’s a live-and-learn thing.”
The community garden where Dorenbach tends to his plants began three years ago. Part of The Big Garden, it was created in connection with Metropolitan Community Church. A program of the nonprofit United Methodist Ministries, The Big Garden focuses on creating community gardens in Omaha and its surrounding areas. The gardens engage community members, provide nutritious food and encourage healthy eating habits.
Dorenbach became involved two years ago when the Nebraska AIDS Project assumed responsibility for the garden. He initially committed to gardening one of the raised beds. Before he knew what was happening, his work encompassed the entire garden.
The Nebraska AIDS Project manages cases and connects resources, explains volunteer and former staff member Don Randolph. It helps clients to connect with hospitals that see people living with AIDS and to provide opportunities for education, community support and fellowship.
‘A lifeline’ to people living with AIDS
The weekly meal hosted at Metropolitan Community Church is the remnant of a program that once provided meals five days a week for NAP clients. Dwindling financial support led to the downsizing.
Because people with HIV/AIDS are living longer, Randolph notes, “it’s not as much of a catastrophe. People aren’t so willing to give. It’s not as glamorous to give.”
Now meals are served every Friday at Metropolitan Community Church.
Kevin Dorenbach (middle) stands in front of the Big
Garden with two Nebraska AIDS Project volunteers.
Dorenbach serves as head gardener for the latest
crops including broccoli, lettuce, squash and corn.
NAP and the church have enjoyed a long partnership. The church was one of the first to offer off-site AIDS testing for community members. Randolph credits the congregation’s longstanding commitment to serving the gay and lesbian community as the foundation for the ties that have kept them working together over the years.
A NAP client since 1999, Dorenbach speaks about the importance of the socializing that happens at the meals provided by volunteers, many of whom become an important part of their community.
On this particular Friday, Miss June is back to visit after a two-month hiatus from her normal volunteering duties. Dorenbach shows the garden to her as she arrives, asking about her recent surgery and recovery and sharing about her faithful commitment and attendance at the weekly meals.
Individuals like Miss June create the community that forms each Friday at noon in the church basement.
“[NAP] has been a lifeline for me in a lot of ways,” Dorenbach says.
Other NAP clients and volunteers join the gathering in the garden. They ignore the possibility of bug bites and snakes to ask how the vegetables are growing, to laugh about the neighbor’s dog who keeps halfhearted watch, to ask which vegetables will grace the lunch table or to check which produce will be harvested next.
Garden also benefits refugees
Gardener Ron Psota is also out digging in the dirt. He gathers the green tops of the radishes that have already been picked and given away.
A former Peace Corps volunteer in India and international student recruiter for a local university, Psota maintains strong connections with several refugee communities in the Omaha area. He recently discovered that Bhutanese refugees love to eat the green radish tops that most Nebraskans throw away.
“It’s a constant learning process,” Psota says as he walks the garden perimeter and comments on the various vegetables Dorenbach waters.
The Bhutanese are just one of the groups that receive produce from the garden.
First priority goes to NAP clients. Dorenbach often works in the garden during MCC worship services, so he also leaves produce inside the church for worshippers to take home. Some of the harvest makes its way to Dorenbach’s house as well as to an Alzheimer’s facility in West Omaha where his aunt lives.
The bounty is just beginning as summer rolls on, but no rabbits are big enough to crush Dorenbach’s gardening spirit.
The root of his agriculture skills goes back to childhood summers spent on his father’s farm outside of Lincoln, Neb. His first garden was in an abandoned horse corral where the natural fertilizer led to an “awesome garden.”
His grandparents were what Dorenbach calls “garden people,” and his grandmother tended to the flowers while his grandfather cared for the vegetables.
“I think agriculture is something passed down like green eyes,” he says.
Hereditary trait or not, it is clear that his early training left him poised for the hours he spends in the beds of the NAP Big Garden. The rabbits’ tastes might be universal in their pursuit of green food, but they have a dedicated foe working against them.
There is lunch to be had, stories to be shared and fellowship to enjoy. And it wouldn’t be the same without the lettuce.
To support the Big Garden (Advance 3021107) and its work throughout Omaha, visit The Advance.
*Eidenshink is a United Methodist Ministries staff member.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or email@example.com.