Penny Robinson is a passionate gardener. She loves the complexity, yet simplicity, of working in a productive garden and finds immense satisfaction in planting, watering, weeding and harvesting.
“I find gardening extremely therapeutic; spending time with nature allows me to slow down from the busyness of my life,” she says. “I was looking for an opportunity to give our residents the same experience.”
The residents she refers to live at a Salvation Army short-term residential crisis accommodation program for single adults and families with accompanying children who are homeless.
The garden she is talking about makes up the large front yard of the Victorian facility where she volunteers each week. Fruit trees line the paling fences and the numerous vegetable gardens and pots of herbs are presided over by a huge mosaic scarecrow. A barbecue area and wooden gazebo, with tomato vines twisting around its base, provide seating among the greenery while the ‘girls’ — six friendly chooks — dawdle up and down
The program accommodates five families and eight single people on-site and manages residents in another 17 community properties. All are encouraged to use the garden, which manager Leanne Foster says provides them with more than just fresh produce; it also gives them a strong sense of community.
“The garden is an extremely peaceful, tranquil setting. Our clients often meet with their friends, family and support workers there, and many residents enjoy helping with its upkeep,” she says.
“A bonus is our six very friendly chickens,which produce amazing eggs for everyone to use. Our ‘girls’ are extremely therapeutic; many of our clients have had to give up their pets when they became homeless, so it’s lovely to see how excited our residents’ children are when they see them.”
It took a couple of years to turn what was once a flat, expansive area of grass into the oasis it is today. Planning permits had to be approved by various agencies and funding had to be secured to turn their seed of an idea into a growing concern. Leanne says this is a community garden in every sense of the word because of the various groups and volunteers who worked together to take the vision to reality.
“A lot of research was undertaken prior to the construction of the garden to ensure we were making the best use of the space,” she says.
“We received funding from The Salvation Army to set up the garden and a grant from the local council for a mosaic program with a local artist. Staff and clients created the plaques for the fruit trees, as well as our mosaic bees on the fence and the huge scarecrow that takes pride of place in the garden.”
A local builder and his two apprentices offered one day a month to help with the initial construction of the fencing, chook shed, tool shed and gazebo.
“He wanted to educate his young apprentices in ‘giving back to the community’. Residents, volunteers and staff helped with all the painting as well as assisting our maintenance officer to build garden beds and construct pathways,” Leanne says.
“We also developed a partnership with Salvation Army Employment Plus to implement a Work for the Dole program.”
The garden’s plentiful produce is put to good use in the community barbecue held once a fortnight — “current and past residents are invited and we often have a wonderful turnout, ”Leanne says — and in the community kitchen program organised by Penny and another volunteer, Ruth.
Penny loves knowing that the program’s clients have access to such fresh, wholesome food.
“The aim of the community kitchen is to develop a menu from the produce currently available in the garden,” she explains. “Clients, volunteers and staff cook and enjoy the meal together; it’s a wonderful way to learn cooking skills.”
Leanne says the success of the garden and its programs hinges on the commitment of their volunteers.
“We are blessed to have such wonderful volunteers, but we can always use more hands on deck to ensure we get the most out of our garden,” she says.
“It’s such a lovely space for people just to ‘be’, to slow down and reflect, and feel a sense of belonging.
“To me, the garden is a representation of our Salvation Army national vision — ‘Wherever there is hardship or injustice, Salvos will live, love and fight alongside others to transform Australia one life at a time with the love of Jesus’. Our garden is a wonderful way for us to come alongside our clients and journey with them.
”The Salvation Army provides domestic and family violence support and homelessness services. If you need assistance, go to www.salvationarmy.org.au/need-help
To volunteer with the Salvos, go to www.salvationarmy.org.au/get-involved