Gardening and Community Building
When Maurice was a young boy in Monrovia, Calif., he fondly remembers visiting his grandfather's house and working in the garden with him. "My grandfather showed me about gardening and I took a liking to it at an early age," he says.
Maurice has lived most of his adult life in inner city Los Angeles, which hasn't afforded him much opportunity to garden. Several years ago, however, Maurice and his wife, Diane, started a community-building and urban revitalization project called Pathway to Progress Community Outreach Center. The project, based in a low-income, crime-infested neighborhood of South Central LA, gave Maurice the opportunity to combine his professional training as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor with his passion for revitalizing urban neighborhoods.
After attending community forums and city council meetings and advocating for help with their community's restoration, Maurice and Diane joined forces with residents to start community revitalization projects that would help them "take back" their neighborhood.
The abandoned lot next door to the Pathway for Progress Center gave Maurice an idea for the new organization's first project. The lot was filled with abandoned cars and trash, and was frequently used for drug sales, gang fights, prostitution, and muggings. "The abandoned lot reflected the people's attitudes about their life and neighborhood," says Maurice. "Many were afraid to walk by the area for fear of being shot," he says. "If this 45' x 119' lot could be taken back and beautified, perhaps it would help change people's views of their community," he says.
Although he was working in a dangerous place, Maurice's strong faith in God helped give him the courage to start cleaning out the lot. Maurice and Diane received permission from Jacob Kahn, the property owner, to use the lot for gardens. The police started patrolling the area more often to discourage criminal activity. Diane wrote grants and received money from the city's Operation Clean Sweep Project to remove the trash and abandoned cars. Maurice enlisted the support of community volunteers from the local church and surrounding neighborhood to clean out the trash, install a water line, and start building the soil.
South Central City Farm
Once the work began in the garden, interesting things started happening. People started coming outside more and talking to each other. After just one year, the crime rate in the neighborhood went down more than 25 percent. The garden has even helped Maurice in his work assisting drug and alcohol addicts. "The garden provides a non-threatening way for me to start talking to these people," says Maurice. "Then maybe I have an opportunity to help with other parts of their lives," he says.
In less than two years, the South Central City Farm, as Maurice calls the garden, has received awards from the Los Angeles Police Department, Mayor's Office, and the City Council. However, it's the transformations of the individuals living in the community that Maurice finds most satisfying. "There is one man who spent most of his adult life in prison. When he got out, I started counseling Johnny as part of my work and we became friends," says Maurice. "I asked if he'd like to help out in the garden. At first he was angry, didn't care about people or property, and had a poor sense of responsibility," says Maurice. After working in the garden for a while, all that started to change. "Now Johnny is the most reliable volunteer I have. He's down here all the time helping out," says Maurice.
The Garden's Future
With the success of the South Central City Farm under his belt, Maurice feels like he's just beginning. He's taking a Master Gardener course in the spring through the University of California Extension Service in order to hone his gardening skills. Eventually, he would like the volunteers to take over running the South Central City Farm so he can concentrate on building more gardens in the area. Maurice's passion for helping neighborhoods by building gardens has personal benefits as well. "Gardening is not only good for the neighborhoods, it's good for me. It's a kind of therapy where I can practice patience and tolerance," he says.
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