Kickoff party today for new community garden at Neary Lagoon apartments

By Jory John, Santa Cruz Sentinel

A group of San Jose State University nursing students, in collaboration with Mercy Housing, will launch a sustainable community garden at the Neary Lagoon Cooperative Apartments today, with the intention of engaging at-risk youth and promoting healthy eating.

More than 50 people are expected to turn out to the launch party, being held at the Neary Lagoon Community Center, which is open to the public. Food, music, a raffle and activities for children will be provided.

The mission of the project, according to organizers, is to “provide a source of nutrition to the immediate communities through gardening, fresh fruits and vegetables, while providing safe educational and social opportunities to children and adolescents in the community.”

In coming months, community youth will design, plant and help maintain the garden, with help from San Jose State nursing student volunteers and willing participants from the community. While today’s launch will serve as an opening celebration and a chance for the students to interact with the community, most of the planting will be held off until spring, according to educator, nurse and primary organizer Tamara McKinnon.

McKinnon, who has taught nursing at San Jose State for 18 years and serves as the program director for the Santa Cruz Nurse Manage Centers, said the garden will provide both food and community pride for the apartment complex residents. McKinnon said that, along with her students, she attempted to assess what the community needed and responded accordingly.

“My philosophy is that I don’t really steer things in a particular direction,” McKinnon said. “We ask the community for their input. We leave it up to the community to decide what they can sustain.”

McKinnon, a Capitola resident, said it was apparent that a lot of the residents at the apartment complex were struggling with nutrition and their health.

“We’ve found a high intensity of childhood obesity at the complex,” she said. “The other piece is that this is a community that could really benefit from an activity that will bring them all together.”

Senior nursing student Dominique Teaford, a Santa Cruz resident, said the garden would be a chance for participating children to get out of their apartments — a respite from television and video games, she said — and take some responsibility for the upkeep of the garden. Teaford added that working on a collaborative community project would encourage positive socializing among the children involved.

“We’ve seen that many of these children have plenty of free time on their hands, and we thought it might be good to come up with an activity that they could do that would be positive,” she said. “We also noticed that there are many community members who lack transportation to get fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Senior nursing student Anna Lutz said there is a direct correlation between nursing and the garden project.

“Nursing should be viewed as a holistic kind of care, not just fixing somebody when they’re sick,” Lutz said. “It’s also about health-promotion and disease-prevention. We are very interested in reducing future risk. Many of these children are involved with risky health behaviors. Unfortunately, many in the community are very nutritionally deficient.”

Santa Cruz County donors include Vision Recycling, Renee’s Garden in Felton and Whole Foods, according to McKinnon. Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin will be in attendance today, she said.

“It’s very exciting that it’s all coming together,” McKinnon said.