Self-sufficiency garden helps Avon Park residents
Pallavi Agarwal | Highlands TodayAVON PARK - Dressed in a striped tie, black pants and a vest, it was not hard to tell that Tyrone Simpson was all business, even when getting his hands caked with dirt.
Published: September 26, 2012
Published: September 26, 2012
"There is an opportunity here," Simpson proclaimed, as he dug a hole and stuck a basil sapling in his 4-foot-by-4-foot plot.
Simpson was already brimming with ideas. Perhaps a vegetable stand or just some horticultural experience on his resume, he figured.
The Avon Park Housing Authority's Housing Specialist Bea Gillians beamed at his enthusiasm.
That's exactly what housing officials hope will catch on among residents of their new transitional and emergency housing, which offers homeless or near homeless families a roof over their heads and life- and job-skills training to get back on their feet.
Tuesday, the county's extension service director Mike Jensen and two Master Gardeners from the program were there to help residents navigate through the basics of planting vegetables and herbs in what the housing authority calls its "self-sufficiency garden."
"Put your name on the list and what you'll like to grow and we'll help you grow it," instructed Master Gardener Charles Reynolds, as he gave a quick introduction to what works in Florida soil.
The idea is not just to give residents a chance to grow something that can help them make money, like a vegetable stand, but a plot of land they can call their own and nurture, Gillians said.
Of its 16 transitional housing units, 14 are full and the waiting list has 85 names.
"Everyone here has a story on how they got here," she said.
Some of the residents like Simpson fell on hard times; others are victims of domestic violence or single parents who need a hands-up.
Simpson, who was an assistant manager in a Sebring store two years ago, got laid off. Along with his job, he lost the rental properties he owned. Then he couldn't pay his mortgage and had to let go of his home.
"It was a snowball effect," he remembered.
He tried everything — from cutting grass to hauling pallets. But no one wanted to hire him full time.
Now, while his wife works as a substitute teacher, he is going to school to get a management degree — first an associate's, then a bachelor's degree.
Simpson may be down and out now, but he doesn't believe in letting that get in the way.
"You can learn a lot from failure," he smiled.
While Simpson was strategizing about business possibilities, Katrine Laird was not sure what she had in mind with her 11 pots and planting plot.
"Maybe a vegetable garden," she guessed.
Her boyfriend, Joseph Kirk, also got laid off and couldn't pay the rent; then the other bills stacked up.
Laird, who took a certified nurse assistant course, is waiting to get her certification, while Kirk has signed up to clean up the housing authority's apartments for $8.26 an hour.
Two weeks ago, Kirk threw some of the cherry tomatoes from the garden into his salad.
"Man! They were good," he remembered, holding an armful of green peppers he was handing out to people.
Eating healthy is one of the things Jensen hopes the program will accomplish for residents.
They want to share recipes of healthy foods, and they hope that the food residents grow also will end up on their plates.
"We want to complete the circle," he added.