Retired Schoolteacher Helms Legacy Community Garden

Daily Point of Light # 7847 Jul 3, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Melvina Jones. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Potwin, Kansas is a town of 421 as of the last census. It’s a place where your former teacher might one day be the mayor, and you’re likely to know everyone at the city council meetings. Ken Whittington, a Gard’N Wise dealer and gardening expert, was a face familiar to many in the community as the man who got the Plant-a-Row for the Hungry Garden started in 2000.

“Ken was one of the most delightful people with a great sense of humor. He’d been a schoolteacher before getting into the gardening business,” recalls Rick McNary, former minister at one of the two churches in town and writer of The Potwin Ledger newsletter. “[He] galvanized the people. He got the city to donate some land under the shadows of our water tower that was built in 1917 that we’re quite proud of. And he learned a long time ago that if he cast a vision, the people and the resources would come.”

With the enthusiastic blessing of the mayor, the project was initiated as part of the Potwin PRIDE program (now known as Kansas Community Empowerment at the state level). It would be used as a way to teach kids how to garden and create an opportunity for adults and kids to do something positive together. And yes, it would feed people who were food insecure.

When the city lost its friendly garden enthusiast in 2006, a new volunteer and longtime resident stepped up. Melvina Jones is a retired P.E. and special education teacher who has lived in Potwin for the last 50 years.

Melvina Jones, coordinator of the Ken Whittingham Memorial Community Garden, works amongst the cucumber trellises.

“Growing up, my family had a garden, and I was in 4H. Gardening was one of my projects. When my son was in 4H, that was his project, too. I was a horticulture project leader with our 4H club at the time and was even the superintendent over at the fair for a few years,” she says of her gardening experience.

In addition to her own garden which she funnels into her healthy cooking hobby, she coordinates volunteers for the ongoing maintenance of the community garden, now called the Ken Whittington Memorial Garden.

“I’m basically the one who keeps it going,” Melvina states. “We’ll have a work day, and I’ll call people, and they’ll come and help. We had one a couple weeks ago when we put the cages on the tomatoes.”

Melvina started helping with the PRIDE Program when her son was young and she was working part-time as a substitute teacher. She saw an opportunity to help the community in her extra time and took it. Today, she leads the whole thing.

“She is indefatigable. What she’s done for this community is just astonishing,” Rick stresses. “Had she not taken over after [Ken] passed, [the garden] simply would not exist.”

Besides the garden, the Potwin PRIDE program puts on events like the recent city-wide garage sale that boasted 14 sales in one weekend.
“That promotes people to come into our town,” Melvina explains. “And we do a National Night Out in October for a block party type of thing. We try to do some cleanup during the year. And we help with the watermelon festival.”

The most work is required by the community garden, described by Melvina as being as large as “half of a block one way and 50-some feet the other way.” Last year, 16 adults and 15 youth harvested 3,844 lbs of vegetables. It has produced over 100,000 lbs since its inception.

After the produce is picked, it is offered to the community via a church garage one day a week for a donation of their choice. The rest is sent to a local food pantry and a nearby Salvation Army or, sometimes, a food pantry in the neighboring town.

“It’s 15 miles to a local grocery store, so we’re a classified food desert. There’s just no access, and yet, with this garden, there’s an abundance of access,” Rick, who is also a garden volunteer, says. “I’ve spent the last 20 years working with food insecurity and know that of all the types of food that food banks desire the most and have the hardest access to, it’s fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Melvina takes pride in the garden she and her volunteers maintain. Last year, 31 volunteers picked 3,844 lbs of produce.

Melvina is also a volunteer youth leader for her church and serves on the board of Wheat State Manor nursing home in Whitewater where she visits with residents, plays bingo and throws birthday parties, though her biggest commitment remains to the garden.

For those hoping to start their own, Melvina suggests seeking the support of the local city council and focusing on low-maintenance vegetables with high yields.

“That first year we did it, I think we had cabbage and beans and some other things, but they are more work intensive,” she expounds. “Bugs get on the cabbage and beans you have to pick. We try to keep the ones that require fewer work days at the garden. And ones that create more produce, like potatoes and sweet potatoes.”

Both Melvina and Rick highlight the town-wide pride in the garden and the work being done there. Last year, residents donated $614 dollars to help with expenses, and the city donates water for irrigation. It’s truly a community-wide effort led by a woman who has dedicated her life to helping others.

“If every community had a dozen of her, they could conquer the world,” says Rick.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Melvina? Find local volunteer opportunities.


Kristin Park