ROCHESTER — A holiday normally spent with flags and bugles at military memorials, or tucked home in pajamas enjoying a day off school was instead spent weeding, cleaning, and planting bulbs in a low-income neighborhood on Rochester’s Northwest side with Flower City Habitat for Humanity. Military veterans like Jose Peo worked alongside 6th grade students from St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Penfield and 8th grade students from Rochester Academy Charter School in the city “Planting Happiness” in this community garden space – a gateway to the neighborhood.
“It’s important to me to continue to make a difference in my community,” says Peo, U.S. Army veteran, and Ridge Road Bank of America employee. “I want to help instill proper values into the next generation. As a military veteran it’s important that they see me continuing to serve through volunteer efforts in my community. There’s a lot of negativity that the younger generation sees/hears and I want to show them that there are positives – that you and go out, make a difference, and help change the things you don’t like.”
Students took the day off to get their hands dirty, helping to physically change community issues like blight and work towards Flower City Habitat’s neighborhood revitalization initiatives. What seems like an adult issue, this wider, big-picture thinking translates into academic issues the students are tackling at school.
“Our robotics’ club [the First Lego League] project for this year is about natural disasters,’ says Mara Heppard, a 6th grade student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. “Part of our challenge is to make a difference in either preparation/safety or rebuilding. Today we’re our working on rebuilding by planting a garden in this neighborhood. It will grow and next year be a green and happy place for people who live here to enjoy.”
While the JOSANA neighborhood isn’t part of a natural disaster scenario the teachers from St. Joseph’s echo that the same tool used to rebuild an economically struggling neighborhood can be applied to larger-scale rebuilding efforts like tornadoes and hurricanes. Focusing on community spaces like garden bring
“When you allow people to live in ugly areas, they become ugly,” says James Lynn a resident of the JOSANA neighborhood who was out working on the garden project in honor of his uncle, a military veteran. “But if you work on a neighborhood, come out and make it beautiful, people will rise to the challenge – they mimic what they see. That’s why I’m out here, that’s why I volunteer, it’s about making the neighborhood beautiful and helping people.”
The “Plan Happiness” project that happened on November 11th in JOSANA is part of a larger initiative by the organization Dig. Drop. Done. in partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates all over the United States. The goal is to work with local garden shops in the areas that Habitat for Humanity builds and donate bulbs to homeowners or community garden areas so that they can beautify struggling neighborhoods with little maintenance.
“We’ve worked with our bulb suppliers, Bristol’s Garden Center, Clover Nursery & Garden Center, and Wayside Garden Center who generously donated Flower City Habitat volunteers a large selection of different types of flower bulbs that will bloom for weeks on end come next Spring,” says Peter van Schie for Dig Drop Done. “I’m especially proud that we’re working on this project during Veteran’s Day. By giving something back to their local community the students are honoring the vets that gave so much to the whole country. Nationally, we’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity International on a project called ‘Plant Happiness’ which makes bulbs available to Habitat for Humanity affiliates and includes a $100,000 donation to Habitat for Humanity International.”
“I’m excited to come out on a local level and have veterans, students, and community members working alongside each other to brighten a neighborhood in need. It really embodies what we’re trying to do – with the promise of colorful blooms in the Spring it brings a little happiness on an otherwise stoic holiday.”
Teachers from Rochester Academy Charter School echoed van Schie’s sentiments. “Veteran’s Day usually means a day off for our students,” said Marysa Cooper, a 7th grade math teacher at Rochester Academy Charter School. “And that’s just fine, but we wanted to bring these students out into our neighborhood to give back. Our school is about college readiness and part of that preparation is giving students exposure to their larger community – allowing them opportunities to become members of that community and create change where it is needed.”
Change, whether it be through building houses, creating homeownership opportunities, or cultivating community spaces is what Flower City Habitat for Humanity’s neighborhood revitalization mission is all about.
“We’re known for building houses,” says Rick Folger, Resource Development Associate for Flower City Habitat, “but improving a neighborhood is about more than just building houses and creating homeowner investment. People want to live in places that are beautiful, that have a sense of community and places to gather. These garden projects are about just that; adding soft approachable areas to a neighborhood in transition and giving community members a place to come together and enjoy where they live.”
Flower City Habitat for Humanity has been working in the JOSANA neighborhood for 7 years. It has a commitment to build 100 houses in the neighborhood (of which it as finished nearly 40) and has recently expanded its mission to include green spaces in a 30 block area defined by Child, Lyell, Brown, and Wilder streets. Flower City Habitat worked last spring to revive a gateway garden at Jay and Broad Streets and in October it continued adding to the space by planting fruit trees in honor of some of its 20 year plus volunteers. It has also helped with garden project at Smith and Broad Streets, as well as the Project Scion gardens (both at Jay and Child Streets and Dewey & Ravine Avenues).