Almost every morning, residents of Winston-Salem, N.C. can find their neighbor Rosa Johnson tending to the Kimberley Park Community Garden. She calls the garden her “happy place,” and describes it as akin to a World War II-era Victory Garden — “victory over fear, victory over violence.” And through her happy place, she is providing both joy and free, healthy food to her community.
Rosa first became involved in the garden four years ago, when it was named the Maya Angelou Mothers and Daughters’ Garden, having been inspired to get involved because she is Angelou’s only living niece. In the past few years, she has helped completely renovate the garden, which was renamed for the elementary school across the street whose children assisted her in restoring it, including decorating the garden’s sheds, benches, and bird houses. Today, Rosa leads fellow volunteers in maintaining the garden’s 30 beds, consisting of numerous vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Anyone who helps out at the garden is welcome to take home its food, which is also donated to local food bank H.O.P.E. and to the community’s elderly population.
Describe your volunteer role with the Kimberley Park Community Garden.
I am an urban gardener and my motto is transformation through collaboration. I came into this community with full intention of transforming it into it’s highest potential. I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with other stakeholders this community. Habitat for Humanity helped me quite a lot. They donated lots of wood for our raised beds in the garden.
How did you get involved in this garden?
This garden was started many years ago and it was called the Maya Angelou Mothers’ and Daughters’ Garden. I’m Maya Angelou’s only living niece, so I was inspired to take part in renovating this garden when I moved on this block. The reason being, I’m a vegan, I raised four children in California out of a garden, so I was very much familiar with gardening. I was fortunate enough to attend the North Carolina State Extension to learn more about gardening here in this city and in this state. Since it was so close to me, within walking distance of where I live, I was stimulated to start this and to reenvision this garden. It’s across the street from an elementary school, and I’m very much involved with the children here in this community. In fact, the children help with this garden. They put in a lot of sweat hours at the beginning of the garden.
Why was it important for the children to be involved in the garden?
Unfortunately, we live in a food desert here. I found out in talking to the children that they really had no idea where food came from. They saw me eating a snow pea off of a plant, and they were amazed I could even eat something that grew out of that dirt.
Where is the food donated?
I donate it to the community and anybody who works in the garden is free to have the food. Last year, we took a lot of the extra food to H.O.P.E. They deliver food in this community. It’s strange, a lot of people think I would charge them to work this garden. No, no, no, please, if you want a bed, please come and work it. It’s yours. Food is free. Health is wealth. I promote that. There’s a fence around the garden, so when I open it, then people know they can come and help me or just look around.
Why is it important for your community to have this resource?
I witness so much healing through this garden. Unfortunately there are a lot of people, primarily women, that are emotionally depleted. Some have mental health problems. I found that coming to work in this soil, in this dirt, has helped at least two or three ladies get off heavy medication and release a lot of stress by working in the soil. Then to reap the harvest, the food that nourishes your body — it’s priceless.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
For me, as an elder, first of all to have the food to feed my body and keep me healthy. The other important thing for me is that my community is able to see that someone cares enough to try to make a difference. It’s almost had a domino effect. Once there’s some other homeowners on this block, they see what I’m doing over there, so now they’re upgrading their property. One family two doors down from the garden, they’re putting a garden in their backyard. It is having a domino effect in this community. They see someone cares. I’m not from here, I’m from California, so for them to see me care enough to pick up the trash, then someone else maybe will come behind me and do the same thing and upgrade this community.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
You have to be persistent, have the courage to keep going on, and be energized. It is work. When people call me and want to volunteer, I appreciate all the many volunteers. Now I’m getting a cross section. I have volunteers from Brazil, from Paris, from China — one or two, but it’s fascinating to see how this is spreading out. It’s my healing place, really. It’s what keeps me sane during these times.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
To never give up. You can transform where you live. When I first moved to this community, there was always a lot of trash. I would call the city and say, “Why don’t you send somebody out here to get this up?” And they told me, “Well, nobody complains.” Well, I am complaining, because I want to transform this community into something of value. It’s important that other people learn that by volunteering in your community, you can upgrade your lifestyle, the way you live. You can encourage children to live a better life. It’s important to me.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Rosa? Find local volunteer opportunities.