DECATUR – Atiyana Chism's grandmother has a garden, and she has helped work in it, so when Camp Discovery's day included a visit to the Mercy Gardens at Good Samaritan Inn, the soon-to-be Eisenhower High School freshman knew what that would entail.
“I just wanted to get some different experiences,” Atiyana said of her reason for signing up for the camp.
Camp Discovery is one of three kinds of camp offered by the Decatur School District in the summer. Camp Connections is for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and focuses on academic achievement and growth in a hands-on way. Camp Discovery, for middle school students, focuses on experiences. Last week, for example, campers learned about art and tried their hand at it. This week the focus is food, cooking and gardening. SMASH Sr. and Jr. are for gifted students.
Cindy Jackson, operations manager for Good Samaritan Inn, took the kids on a walk around the garden plots that help supply the kitchen for the facility, which offers meals to economically disadvantaged people, job skills training and work experience. One of those plots accidentally provides nourishment to some needy wildlife.
“You see that shed there?” Jackson asked, pointing to it. “A family of groundhogs lives under it, father, mother and four babies. We used to have lettuce and cabbage in the area over there and they just decimated it. So we we left it to grow wild, hoping it would keep the groundhogs busy. We call it our sacrificial plot for the groundhogs.”
Good Samaritan is in the Old Kings Orchard Neighborhood, and that inspired another plot, Jackson said when she took the kids to see that one. When Decatur was a new community, the neighborhood now known as Old Kings Orchard was where a man named Dr. King lived and was on the outer fringe of Decatur then.
“When Staley's came into town and ADM started hiring so big, people started moving into this neighborhood,” Jackson said. “As they moved here, Dr. King noticed there were people here from all different areas of the community, but they didn't really know each other. So, he started installing some of these orchards. The neighbors then came together to care for the trees and harvest the apples, and it really began to form a fellowship area for them to get to know each other and know who they were living next to.”
Good Samaritan has planted apple, peach and pear trees in its orchard and this will be the first year the trees have borne apples, she said. It takes three years from planting to the first apples and while it won't be a big crop, the hope is that the trees, like the other gardens and the greenhouses, will supply the kitchen at Good Samaritan and nourish those who come there.
Most of the garden plots used to be the sites of houses that were unoccupied and torn down, Jackson said, including the orchard. When a house is torn down, the water service is removed, making it difficult to keep the gardens watered. That was most crucial in the orchard. Ameren installed rainwater collecting troughs and a solar-powered pump that directs the rainwater to the trees for irrigation.
After the tour, the students were divided into two groups, one to visit the greenhouses and learn how they work, and the other to assist in some of the garden work.
One of the tasks was to cover the ground with black plastic, shovel dirt on the plastic to keep it in place, and cover it with straw to prevent weeds from growing. Brakyia Clark, who will be in seventh grade at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in the fall, readily volunteered to help when some of the other kids were hesitant.
“I've never done anything like this before,” she said. “I'm learning something new.”