2003 Garden Crusader Awards

Winner: Grand Prize
Earl Antwine, New Orleans, La.

Earl Antwine and crew
Earl Antwine has created a bountiful garden in downtown New Orleans.
When you visit God's Vineyard Community Garden, it's easy to forget you're in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in downtown New Orleans. Surrounding you on every side are gardens overflowing with okra, corn, greens, peppers, sweet potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes. There are chickens clucking, ducks and geese strutting, and even rabbits hopping about!

These bountiful gardens are tended by Earl Antwine and more than a dozen young men from the community. The vegetables they produce are distributed to needy families and the elderly in their community.

This garden didn't start out as a place for young men to learn the value of growing food for their community. In 1997, the Sixth Baptist Church, which owns the land, decided to start a garden to grow food for the hungry. Church member Noel Jones took on the challenge of turning what was a weed-choked abandoned lot into a productive garden. Growing up in the city, Noel had little gardening knowledge and experience. Earl Antwine, who lived next door to the garden, was raised on a 180-acre farm in Oklahoma, and he found it hard to resist teasing Noel about his lack of gardening know-how. "Noel got tired of me kidding him and said, if you know so much, you come in here and garden," says Earl.

One day while Earl was gardening, some local boys stopped by. They watched for awhile and then asked if they could help. Before he knew it, Earl had 30 6- to 11-year-old boys gardening with him. "A lot of these kids had nothing to do at home and some of them had home lives that weren't that good," says Earl. "In the garden, they have camaraderie with other kids and are doing something constructive," he adds.

The garden wasn't always a peaceful scene. Boys from different parts of the St. Thomas Housing Project would come and often get into fights in the garden. "At first, I spent as much time being a peacemaker as a gardener," says Earl. Then someone donated some chickens to the project. Amazingly, the boys stopped fighting and started caring for the birds. "These boys were selfish and didn't know how to share at first," says Earl. "The animals helped teach them how to take care of others," he says.

The boys who work at the garden are especially intrigued with the idea of raising chickens, geese and rabbits.
Today, a dozen or so boys are still very involved in the gardens. They do much of the planting, weeding and picking. There are now geese and rabbits to care for along with the chickens. To pay for the animal feed, the boys collect recyclable cans and fix and sell old bikes. The vegetables they grow are delivered to shut-ins and the local food shelf. Extra food is often cooked for the boys as a snack while they work or is taken home to the boys' families.

Earl's commitment to working with these young men goes far beyond the garden. "We're family," he says. "The boys often invade my house after working the garden and we have dinner together," he says. Earl actually adopted one of the boys after the boy's mother died.

Earl knew these boys needed more than the lessons of gardening, hard work and giving back to the community. He started a tutoring program after school to help them with homework and now has a computer lab in his house. Talking with these young men about their future plans for work and education is yet another way that Earl is helping to ensure they have a brighter future.

Last year they started a business together. With a USDA grant Earl was able to take some of the boys to a conference in Cleveland to learn about starting a garden-based business. The business idea they settled on was making a specialty hot sauce from peppers grown in the garden. All the proceeds from the sale of the St. Thomas 7-Pepper Hot Sauce will go toward a job training and college scholarship fund for these young men.

Earl has become a mentor and father figure for the boys, while the boys have provided Earl with an extended family he dearly loves; God's Vineyard Community Garden is yielding far more than vegetables.

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