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Photographer Documents Garden Success

2002 Garden Crusader Winner:
Feeding the Hungry Category

With her photographs, Roberta Hayes has documented much of the work being done in several community gardens in Massachusetts.
Growing up in public housing in Albany, N.Y., Roberta Hayes knows what a garden can mean. "A garden gives you a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging," she says. Roberta hasn't forgotten that sense as she has made gardening the focal point of her life in Roxbury, Mass. "I'm a photographer, educator, oral historian, carpenter, and garden designer," she says. "All this enables me to use my skills to bring people together from different backgrounds and to give them a sense of home, too."

Land of Many Gardens
In the mid-1980s Roberta moved to Roxbury. "Roxbury is blessed with many community gardens from the 1970s Revival Program, so it's a great place to live," she says. She started her work in the Margaret Wright Memorial Community Garden in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury working as a co-coordinator for 5 years. Then her efforts went to the nearby Mystic Public Housing Development Community Garden. She has not only helped restore and build these gardens, but has also documented many images and stories of the gardeners in her book, Growing What We Need: The Voices of the Mystic Community Gardeners.

People in the Mystic Gardens come from all over the world, Vietnam to Brazil. For them, gardening an activity that goes beyond words. "We didn't have to all speak the same language to understand each other in the garden," says Roberta. Through Roberta's photos and interviews it is apparent the garden has become a way for these immigrants to connect their new home with the old. As Nga Huynh, a Vietnamese community gardener said, "In Vietnam we had lots of gardens and spent a lot of time with friends and family in the garden. Here we can too."

SUN Program
Roberta has taken her love of gardens, photography, and oral history and brought it into the Boston Public Schools. It gives children a sense of the diverse cultures of people living around them. She also has taken her love of kids and works in the Sustaining Urban Nature (SUN) program based at the Bessie Barnes Community Garden in Lower Roxbury. The kids in the program not only enjoy the outdoors, get fresh air, and exercise, but they learn practical skills such as carpentry they can use later in life.

Roberta directs kids in landscaping, carpentry, gardening building, and design projects. "Gardening is a great way for boys and girls to work together," she says. These kids have built a children's garden from scratch and have learned to take pride in their work. "I particularly remember a 17 year old Haitian boy named Vigito. As he became more involved in the SUN Program, he became more responsible and focused in the rest of his life," says Roberta.

Future Gardens
And Roberta isn't finished yet. She's working on another project to build a greenhouse in the community gardens to extend the growing season and raise seedlings. "I love working with people and feel like I get as much energy back from these gardening projects as I give," she says.

Last updated: 10/24/15