Fruits of their labor — Volunteers at Monastery Gardens help community in time of need

HOLLIDAYSBURG — St. Vincent de Paul Monastery Community Gardens volunteers are stepping up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn in the area.

“A lot of people lost jobs. We believe there will be an increase in the number of families who need help. That is why we decided to plant more in the field than in the past,” said project manager Jim Yeager, a highway designer for PennDOT. “Last year, we produced our highest total with

4.5 tons. If we have a good growing season, we could almost double our tonnage. The weather is so unpredictable.”

The Monastery Gardens were officially founded April 15, 2008, at St. Bernardine’s Monastery in the Catfish area outside of Hollidaysburg.

The Blair County Community Gardens, which provided the community with garden plots on which gardeners could grow fruits and vegetables for family use, had been located on the grounds of the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home for 32 years.

PSU guidance

The Blair County Master Gardeners of the Penn State Extension service gave oversight and basic information and education to area community gardeners.

In 2007, when it was announced that the government planned to build an armory near the garden site, Blair County Penn State Cooperative Extension Director Tom Ford and Pat Trimble, chairperson of the Master Gardener Community Gardens project, began the search for a new garden site.

The Franciscans of St. Bernardine’s Monastery offered two, one-acre plots for use as a community garden. The friars, under the leadership of Father Patrick Foley and Brother John Kerr, along with several Penn State Master Gardeners and community gardeners, planted the first garden.

Yeager credits Trimble for making the new location a reality.

“She coordinated with the friars,” he said. “They formed a partnership. The Franciscans liked the project. It was part of their way of life. We are guests, but we treat it as our own property. They are happy with what we are doing and helping other people.”

Dedicated to Trimble

This year’s growing season is being dedicated to Trimble, who died April 21.

Yeager also credits Ford with helping with the Monastery Gardens.

“The extension office and Tom Ford have been instrumental with helping us,” Yeager said. “He gives us heads-up on plant diseases, inspects the gardens and answers any questions we may have. He has been a great resource and assisted us in any decision making and when and how to plant things. He provided us with a lot of education. He is a resource, and if we need him, he makes himself available.”

Ford, now a commercial horticulture educator for Penn State Extension, praised the project.

“The Monastery Gardens and their group of dedicated volunteers recognized that there were food insecurity issues in Blair County and decided to take action by growing fresh produce for distribution in two high tunnels on the monastery grounds,” he said. “While many organizations talk about food insecurity and hunger in the county, the Monastery Gardens volunteers are the only group in the county that are actually growing and distributing fresh nutritious food for those in need.”

The goal of the gardens, located on Monastery Road, is simple.

“The No. 1 purpose is to be an aid to people who are in need,” Yeager said. “We grow organic produce. It is quality produce. We won’t give anything away that we wouldn’t eat. It is for people who are less fortunate and can’t afford these types of things. We want to provide them with good nutrition and wholesome produce.

“No. 2, the efforts we’ve been working toward others in need has built a community of people, individuals who provide volunteer resources. Without volunteers, we would not be as successful as we are today.”

Advance planning

Planning for each year’s garden begins in January.

“In January, we send out a survey to agencies we have helped in the past,” Yeager said. “They tell us how many people they serve and what they are interested in receiving. Then we plant. This year because of the economic crisis, we decided we will grow in more areas we haven’t used. Opening up more of the land to grow because of people in need, there will be more.”

Planting began in the third week of March with cabbage and broccoli. Throughout the season, volunteers will also plant sweet onions, cauliflower, cucumbers, pole beans, sweet peppers, crookneck squash, scallop squash, zucchini, sweet corn and primavera, acorn and butternut pumpkins.

The produce is donated to many area organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen and Dorothy Day Outreach Center at Saint Francis University in Loretto.

“They are very good with an assortment of good, fresh vegetables,” said Sister Paula DelGrosso, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen. “We give them to people as soon as we can when they are good and fresh. It is real good for us and our people. The quality is very good. Good produce is expensive. They really bring in good stuff.”

“Receiving their fresh produce is a great benefit for us, and our clients because we don’t have enough refrigeration to properly hold the milk and eggs we give out and the produce they give us,” said Brother Gabriel Amato, director of the Dorothy Day Outreach Center. “We distribute food two days a week, and our clients really love the fresh vegetables. Their food quality is wonderful — probably better than stores because they don’t have to harvest it very early and ship it to us.”

St. Vincent de Paul tie

In 2015, the Monastery Community Gardens became associated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a special project. That year was a banner year for community gardeners and the garden.

“We function better as a whole under their nonprofit organization,” Yeager said.

Yeager said finding enough volunteers is the biggest challenge the Monastery Gardens face, but last year volunteers contributed more than 1,300 hours.

“There are five of us on the board,” he said. “We are the main volunteers. Once we get into the summer months, it gets to be slim pickings. That is when we really need help. That is when produce becomes available to be harvested. It takes a lot of work to keep things growing. We also need delivery people. We need people on call. We always need standby individuals. They are the success of the garden. Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are. This is all volunteerism out of love and passion to help people.”

Yeager said he receives many letters of appreciation and gratitude.

“People are so grateful,” he said. “It goes quick. It’s good, fresh produce. It is delivered within 12 hours, people are happy to receive it. They know it costs a lot to get this. The people at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank, they make sure people get a good appropriation for their families.”

Yeager also said it makes him feel good to help others.

“It is gratifying,” he said. “I keep saying that I have a good job and make enough money to make my own food choices. There are people that don’t have that same opportunity. They have to take what is available. I want these people to get the same nutritional value that I do. There is a lot of work in putting this together, but it is gratifying. When you get that good feedback, that is the fuel that drives the machinery. This is the best job I’ve ever had and don’t get paid for it.”

Anyone interested in volunteering should call 330-0866 or 414-6828.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.


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