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Fruit trees coming to north county community garden

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2011 - For Sandra Wood, teaching young people the importance of healthy eating is necessary. "I go through diabetes, and I want young people to have the means of eating properly."

Breaking the cycle of diabetes and heart disease in African Americans is important to Wood, saying that kids should look to their parents on what they can do differently for their future. To that end, Wood volunteers at the Teen Awareness Program at Circle of Light Associates  (COLA), an organization formed in 1991 by Rev. Jeff Johnson Jr. to help people in the community with issues such as food, housing and education.

The teen group manages COLA Victory Youth Community Garden, which the website says "was established on a lot once filled with debris, weeds and brush." The garden takes up an acre of land in north county. And Wood's church, Circle of Light, also owns Down Home Elegance Restaurant just north of Bellefontaine Neighbors.

It was recently selected as part of Edy's Fruit Bar "Communities Take Root" contest. The company will plant fruit trees in 20 communities across the country. A voting process has been taking place throughout the summer, with Edy's picking five community gardens each month.

"Well, I looked online, and I wanted funding for this garden. It's hard to get money for this program, because we're on private property," Wood said.

Wood started the community garden "as a hobby ... and then I got involved the teen program at Circle of Light Church."

Others joined in, with Gateway Greening and Thomson Reuters helping to help spearhead the garden program. "We had a high school student who was involved with the Lincoln University Urban Impact Center who helped us in the garden," Wood said.

The group broke ground a little more than a year ago, with the hope of changing the community.

"Edy's really fit perfect with us trying to revitalize our commitment and to help feed people," Wood said.

According to Kim Goeller-Johnson, brand communications manager for Edy's Fruit Bars, "The COLA Victory Youth Community Garden ... is dedicated to helping their community by providing them not only with fresh fruit, but using this orchard as a tool to unite the community. Each organization that has won an orchard through this program has a unique and compelling story and mission. (The online essay can be read at Communitiestakeroot.com."

According to Goeller-Johnson, other area organizations got help with orchards last year. They are the Botanical Heights Community Garden, Grace Hill Settlement House and the International Institute of St. Louis Community Orchard.

Edy's sends people to plant the fruit trees and provide information about how to prepare food in a more nutritious way.

Wood's ultimate goal is to give the young women a broad sense of community and hard work, something Shaquell Humphries doesn't take for granted.

Humphries, a freshman Northwest Academy, explains that working in the garden is important because the trees and grass give back oxygen, leading to life for everyone else.

"I really like the COLA program, because it's a lot of people my age. One day we might go to the Black Rep Theatre, the next day we might go swimming in the community pool," Humphries said.

She enthusiastically points to different parts of the garden, citing her creative contribution, "My favorite area is this part with the rocks and lights. I did all of the designs painted on them."

Wood said that growing the vegetables and fruit would teach the girls important educational skills.

"First we will donate the food to a grassroots food pantry in Baden, which will help them learn the importance of giving," Wood said.

The program will also teach the girls essential business skills, letting them sell their produce at a local market. The girls will receive a percentage of the money from their labor.

The ultimate goal is give the girls an education and to teach the girls essential life skills, "I know that McDonalds is a favorite food of young people, but I want to them to learn how to eat properly."

Wood says that it will help them understand nature, their community, because all people play a role in the world we live in.

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.

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