Just One Seed for Change

A community garden was inaugurated at Syracuse Housing Authority’s Pioneer Homes Saturday, April 20. The garden was brought about through a partnership with Upstate Medical Hospital and the neighborhood as part of an initiative to promote healthy living through sustainable practices. The hope is that teaching residents, particularly at a young age, that planting your own food is not only effortless, but it’s something everyone can do. 

What started off as a partially sunny day quickly turned into a mix of rain, snow and hail—not exactly the ideal weather for gardening. Regardless, residents from Pioneer Homes and employees from SHA and SUNY Upstate Medical Hospital showed up to help lay down mulch for a new garden for Pioneer residents.

“There’s a sense of community in public housing,” says Bill Simmons, 56, executive director for SHA. “It’s an opportunity for tenants to enrich their lives, eat healthy and be self-sufficient,”

There are 15 housing developments with more than 2,500 apartments in SHA, according to its website. Simmons adds that there’s a first-come first-serve tenant based housing choice voucher program, which is a subsidy that allows eligible tenants to live in the private sector. However, Simmons says that they had to close the wait list because it grew unmanageable to over 10,000 names. With such high demand and heavily concentrated population, Pioneer Homes was approached by Upstate Medical Hospital about an initiative to not only help educate residents by teaching them sustainable practices, but showing them how to do so.

“The mission is to focus on building a healthy living relationship with Upstate Medical’s closest neighbors,” says Mozart Guerrier, 26, the community engagement specialist for SUNY Upstate Medical Hospital. Guerrier has been one of the primary motivators for helping to get the program off the ground. He noted though that the program started small years ago with a concept from fellow SUNY Upsate employee Dwaine Spence.

“It started as a simple idea that this is a community can benefit from the knowledge base that exists at the college,” Spence, 32, and a radiation therapist at SUNY Upstate, said about the original thought behind his 2006 senior project at SUNY’s College of Health Professionals. Part of his project included visiting different developments of the Housing Authority and holding workshops that helped educate and promote health and wellness. Spence isn’t as directly involved anymore but still likes to help out whenever he can.

“It’s very fulfilling to see,” he said about how the idea has grown.

More than 20 people showed up to help out in the garden. However, when the weather quickly turned to cold and damp, they had to forego planting any seeds and instead encouraged the kids to plant their seeds in Styrofoam containers and save them for planting at a later date.

“It enforces the idea that addressing health concerns starts with the community and building relationships over time,” Guerrier said. Upstate’s employees volunteered their time to come help out—something Guerrier, and those who both live and work for the Housing Authority, see as an encouragement and model for how neighbors should be.

“This is something we need to do to bring our community together, it’s a positive thing,” said Linda Campbell, 62, property manager of Pioneer Homes for the past seven years. Campbell, along with others who were involved in the partnership, made sure that resident feedback was instrumental into every decision.

“It’s not just this neighborhood, it’s a collective neighborhood, a collective garden … we’re showing how to work with our land and how to be responsible,” Campbell adds.

Quwanka Ellerby, 35, has been a resident of Pioneer Homes for the past 14 years and finds that this community garden can only pave the way for a brighter future in her neighborhood.

“I’d like to see a garden in all the courts,” Ellerby said. “To see more people involved in change … we’re here to inspire that just because you’re living in Syracuse Housing doesn’t mean you can’t live within your means.” Ellerby has three kids that although weren’t able to make it out, she will make sure to teach them how important leading a healthy and nutritional life is.

“To have healthy vegetables in the garden shows and teaches kids that fresh is good. Healthy eating is good.”