This past weekend I volunteered with New York Cares, Common Cents and others in Jenny’s Garden in West Harlem. The day was a celebration and kickoff of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, which started today in NYC. With supplies generously donated by a corporate sponsor, we had enough mulch, top soil, hoes and rakes to keep us busy for hours. And busy we were…
The Riverside Valley Community Garden is on 138th and 12th Avenue inside of Riverside Park. It houses fresh vegetable and fruit plots that grow lettuce, potatoes, eggplant, peaches, plums, pears and cherries and more. This garden and many others within a 10 block radius, have been tended to by Jenny Benitez for the past 25 years. At 76, she has been volunteering her time every day to keep her neighborhood beautiful alongside other caring community members. Jenny was there on Saturday and the way she was pruning and digging and lifting and mulching, it seems clear that gardening is one great way to stay healthy and active! She is an amazing woman who, in the late eighties, saw a vacant lot filled with abandoned cars, drug addicts and garbage, and chose to do something about it. That lot is now a neighborhood gem and popular spot for groups of volunteers to get their hands dirty on summer weekends.
Arriving at 10am, our group of 25 volunteers received a brief tutorial on the tools we’d be using and where the gardens were located. They span about 20 blocks, sloping off of Riverside Drive and 12th Avenue, so it was good to have a sense of where we’d be for the day, if only to make sure we didn’t get lost from the pack. From the main Community Garden on 12th Avenue, we set out on Riverside Drive and spent the next three hours cleaning up a few large garden plots. We made a real difference that day, which is one of the best things about beautification projects: you can see results immediately, and that feels good.
While I was on my hands and knees pulling weeds from the garden that ran along the street, I saw a pair of hands on the other side of the fence doing the same. I picked up my head to see an elderly gentleman holding car keys in one hand, and a mass of weeds in the other. I thanked him as he handed me his bounty to throw in our garbage bags, already full of pruned hedges and garbage, and with a nod of acknowledgment he went back to work on the weeds I couldn’t reach from inside the garden. It was touching to see someone stop what they’re doing and take a moment to help; he was seemingly a local, on his way to his car, and felt compelled to help, if only for 5 minutes. It made my day.
We finished around 1pm, at which point we headed back to the Garden to eat pizza under the shade of grapes growing on a large trellis. With the sun shining, surrounded by good people doing good things for an appreciative community, it was a truly great day.
You can help Jenny tend her gardens by volunteering solo or with a group. She’s a great woman who can teach you a thing or two about gardening, and she loves all volunteers that come to help. You can do so by visiting the Riverside Park Fund website and filling out the volunteer inquiry form, or sign up with New York Cares.
Thanks to the National Conference on Volunteering and Service for hosting the day and providing some sweet t-shirts for all the volunteers that came out to help Saturday. You can watch highlights of the conference and stay informed virtually by clicking here.