Chris Ann Coker was only 50 when debilitating arthritis forced her to retire from her job as a night cook at Cox North Hospital. She had stood on her feet there for 22 years — and then some as a military mess hall cook before that.
After Coker retired, she wasn’t used to sitting around. It wasn’t long before she started looking for volunteer opportunities. As it happened, the Weller neighborhood resident didn’t have to look far.
Only next door, in fact, to the garden at Weller Community Church, 1624 E. Blaine St.
Soon, Coker was helping with the church’s weekly food distribution of community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, then in the garden itself.
And since 2016, when the garden became part of Springfield Community Gardens as Weller Community Garden, she has accepted even more of a leadership role as the garden’s vice president.
“I feel like this is my calling,” she said, resting on a bench shaded by peach trees and looking across rows of vegetables, from kale and mustard greens to beans, peppers and tomatoes.
As the growing season heats up at 18 community gardens in the city, Coker is one of at least 680 volunteers, said Anna Withers, SCG farmer and resource development manager. Twenty paid staff members help manage the organization and its gardens, yet SCG volunteers still put in almost a quarter of the more than 28,000 hours of labor contributed at the gardens last year, according to the nonprofit’s website.
In return for their “sweat equity” work, some SCG gardens offer volunteers their pick of the produce they raise to donate to the needy. Counting produce donated by Ozarks Food Harvest and grown at SCG’s three incubator farms, the organization distributed 141,718 pounds of produce in 2021, with harvests from the community gardens accounting for nearly 16,000 pounds of the total.
Yet like Coker, other volunteers agree that what they harvest from their labor amounts to much more than fruits and vegetables.
Seeds of knowledge
Gardening know-how — and the chance to pass that on to other volunteers — is one benefit, especially since SCG volunteers don’t have to have growing experience.
At Weller Community Garden, Coker says she has learned much of what she knows from garden co-leaders Fred and Sandy Rosenkrans, who moved to Springfield from Nebraska in 2015 after Fred retired as an Assemblies of God pastor.
Now in their 70s, the couple learned much of what they know about gardening while raising five children on a tight budget, Sandy said: “We pretty much ate what we could grow.”
Likewise, at Meador Community Garden in Ray Kelly Park, 2225 S. Fremont Ave., garden leader Elaine Trimmell passes on what she knows to younger volunteers.
During her first Tuesday volunteer shift, Missouri State University psychology major Olivia Grandberry said spending a few hours at Meador had been an “eye-opening” learning experience as she gardened in exchange for produce to donate to the MSU food pantry, where she also volunteers.
Sitting beside Trimmell on a picnic bench, the St. Robert native quipped that she is “just a sponge” for gardening tips — since her own growing experience has been limited to a few houseplants.
One of Meador’s first volunteers after the first beds were built there in 2015, Trimmell is glad to teach others. “It’s good to know you’re teaching the younger generation,” she said. “I try to teach anything I know about gardening, and then they teach us things also.”
Before getting her hands dirty at Meador after seeing a work email asking for volunteers, the Mercy Hospital coding and billing specialist furthered her own gardening knowledge by reading.
“I went to the library — the place where they had books,” Trimmell joked with the 22-year-old Grandberry as she remembered her obsession with Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening.”
“I checked that book out so many times I know my fingerprints were all over it,” Trimmell said.
Yet Googling was how the baby boomer’s millennial co-leader, Brandon Smith, made his way to Meador and a hands-on gardening education.
In 2018, the 28-year-old architectural designer knew he needed to find an antidote to his desk job at a local firm. “I got tired of sitting, so I decided I would take up gardening,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to grow my own food.”
Smudged with dirt and sweat after spreading compost and mulch on Tuesday, Smith said getting outside to work with hands after spending all day at a computer is “a treat” — and he made Trimmell smile by calling her Meador’s “master gardener.”
Such camaraderie popped up like last year’s tomatoes at Springfield community gardens visited this month.
Through volunteering, Weller co-leader Fred Rosenkrans said, “You get a lot of friends, and you get produce from it as well.” As he got ready to carry CSA boxes from a church kitchen outside for Wednesday’s food distribution, he added, “It’s a lot more fun doing things when you’ve got someone to talk to than when you’re doing them alone.”
After six years of working with a core group of eight to 10 other Weller volunteers, Coker said, “We love and care for each other.”
Sitting on benches at the Delaware Neighborhood Garden, 1538 E. Stanford St., volunteer Teresa Pope and garden leader Jean Ackley chatted easily as they cooled off around a fountain decorated with fairy figurines that splashed water into a pool filled with goldfish and minnows.
“Horsetail is one of the most ancient of plants, and it hasn’t changed a lot in millennia,” Pope commented as a visitor noticed the green bamboo-like shoots growing around the pool. “I’ve learned most of it from her,” she added, looking at Ackley, who is a University Extension master gardener.
“Well, she knows all those names I can’t pronounce,” Ackley replied.
“Well, I took Latin in high school,” Pope responded.
Ackley has led work at the garden since the first beds were built in 2016. Pope, a new Delaware resident curious about what was going on, started volunteering there the next year.
“It literally is my happy place,” Pope said. “I’ve learned so much here.”
Together, they recalled the lush garden’s history.
“The first year, we rented beds for $20 a year,” Ackley said, adding that was “a disaster” because gardeners would try to plant too much in one bed or, worse, start gardens and never return to take care of them, leaving plants to go to seed.
“We had yellow pear tomatoes for how many years?” she asked Pope.
However, along with fruits and vegetables, Pope noted the garden has “many, many pollinator plants” — and said she likes to call Ackley “the monarch mama” because she raises butterflies at home.
Ackley didn’t dispute her.
“We always tell people if they want any fennel or dill, they better check to make sure they don’t get extra protein, because that is the host plant to the black swallowtail,” she joked.
A healing harvest
Despite the lighthearted banter, the mood turned somber as the two recalled the origins of the Delaware garden seven seasons ago.
“This is where Craig Wood’s house was,” Ackley said of the garden’s lot.
In 2014, Wood, now on death row at Potosi Correctional Center, abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered 10-year-old Westport Elementary student Hailey Owens at his house. It was demolished in 2016 after anonymous buyers purchased the property and donated it to SCG.
Ackley lives in the north-side Doling Park neighborhood, not in south-central Delaware, but Hailey was one of her granddaughter’s best friends.
“I told her, I said, ‘Well, one of these days I’ll find something to honor her,’” Ackley said. “And this is it.”
She and Pope say the garden isn’t named after Hailey because they don’t want it to be a constant reminder of what once happened on the property. Even after Wood was imprisoned, the neighborhood was so traumatized that parents were afraid to let their children play in front yards, they say.
Today, when a video Ackley recorded of Hailey and her granddaughter singing at a Christmas program pops up on her phone, she still grieves. Yet tending the Delaware garden has been healing, she says, especially when passersby comment on its beauty and thank volunteers.
She believes Hailey would appreciate it, too.
“You know, who couldn’t love this place—and I know she would,” Ackley said.
Back at the Weller garden, Coker hopes her own can-do spirit inspires others to volunteer, even if they, too, have physical disabilities. When she tends or harvests vegetables, she sits on a rolling cart.
“I have to improvise a lot,” Coker said. “People encourage me: ‘Chris can do it, I can do it.’”
As some garden leaders get older and food insecurity continues in the community, more dedicated volunteers are needed in the gardens. The Covid-19 pandemic has hampered volunteerism and gardens’ progress, leaders agree, but this year they hope to see more willing to help.
Now operated by paid SCG staff, Amanda Belle’s Farm, 851 E. Primrose St., will soon be recruiting volunteers to help grow vegetables for CoxHealth employees’ CSA boxes, said farm team coordinator Anneliese Kerr.
And at the Meador garden, where regular volunteers can be counted on one hand, a new billboard welcomes new volunteers to work for food, Trimmell said.
She’s hopeful. Recently, two City Utilities bus riders debarked at a nearby stop, saw the billboard, worked at the garden for a while, and left with some vegetables. Trimmell hopes they return—and bring others.
“We’re here three days a week,” she said. “If they’ll come and help, we’ll give them all that they’ll take. There’s always some left over.”
As much as she also enjoys teasing her fellow volunteers, she says, neighbor Terri Stephens, 54, donates her time for that very reason.
“I just help out, and whatever they have extra, I get a little bit,” she said.
The gardens are also grateful for college students like Grandberry. At the Delaware garden, a dozen MSU service-learning students built its water feature, Ackley said, and both she and Pope sang the praises of a recent MSU student who helped at the garden this spring.
“The young people, the college students, are so energizing, and I feel younger having them around,” said Pope,
However, Pope added, “Our hope is that we would have volunteers who would come and take produce home for their families.” They’ve set out trays of free produce, but takers have been few, she said.
At Weller Community Church, though, vehicles moved steadily through the driveway on during Wednesday’s food distribution.
Driving through in the old Jamboree RV he calls home, Raymond Pinson, 72, was among many who appreciated volunteers’ efforts.
“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” said Pinson, riding with his chihuahuas, Pixie and Dixie, as picked up CSA boxes for himself and a neighbor at the RV park where they live. “I can’t afford to buy any vegetables.”
Doris Mitchell, a 44-year-old mother of four who volunteered at Weller before the pandemic, echoed Pinson’s sentiments as she picked up produce for her family of six.
“It really helps with our grocery bill a lot, to be able to have more nutritious foods,” she said.
Six years after retiring, Coker said she has faith that after she is gone, there will be a volunteer to take her place. For now, though, she loves her work at the Weller garden and says the volunteers there make a difference for others.
“I know I’ve found community,” Coker said. “We help people in so many ways—not just with the vegetables, but spiritually, mentally and financially.”
Susan Atteberry Smith is an Adjunct English Instructor at Ozarks Technical Community College. A former Springfield News-Leader reporter, Smith writes freelance articles for several publications, including Missouri Life, 417 Magazine and Biz 417. More by Susan Atteberry Smith