Kristina Welch, Executive Director of the Denver-based nonprofit, Jovial Concepts and the Co-Op at 1st, shares how they are growing gardens and community in schools and neighborhoods in Metro Denver, Colorado.
Meet Kristina Welch, Jovial Concepts
At age 22, feeling lost and wondering what to do with her life, Kristina Welch came across the documentary Peace One Day, by Jeremy Gilley. Inspired by the film, Kristina reached out to Jeremy to ask what she could do to create peace and community in her neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. On his suggestion, she started reaching out to the community and began asking what the needs were. Again and again, food came up as a primary need.
In 2009, Kristina started Jovial Concepts with a mission to empower underserved communities to thrive by creating access to high quality food, promoting healthy and sustainable living, and increasing self reliance.
Lawns to Gardens
In 2016, Jovial Concepts launched a Lawns to Gardens initiative. The goal was to start building gardens and feeding people. Jovial Concepts works with residents, businesses and schools. For residents, they start with a 3' x 10' area.
Jovial Concepts uses a step-by-step process to do everything with the garden hosts from removing grass, to preparing the beds, adding soil amendments, setting up drip irrigation, growing seedlings, transplanting, maintaining, and harvesting. Jovial Concepts works with the garden hosts at every step, repeating the process for three years.
Because Jovial works in neighborhoods, the gardens act as a way to build stronger communities, with families having a reason to share, interact and learn from each other.
The garden hosts eat as much food as they want from their gardens. Jovial also provides cooking, freezing and canning classes to help families expand the amount of food they can use.
Any food that isn't eaten by the hosts is donated to local food pantries and elementary schools. "We donate about 5,000 pounds of food a year, beyond what the gardeners and volunteers eat," said Kristina.
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Gardening for All
Jovial Concepts noticed that many organizations and gardeners had gone before them and struggled. "Our philosophy is making gardening accessible to anyone," said Kristina.
Garden hosts are asked to pay $29 per month contribution. It costs $600 per year per participant. The funds come from generous donors and grants, along with the participant contributions. Kristina noted that no one is turned away. In the neighborhoods where they're working, Jovial Concepts can work with anyone who wants to garden even if the garden host can't pay.
Jovial Concepts manages 67 gardens total, with garden teams in Arvada, Lakewood, Edgewater and Aurora. Jovial Concepts also hosts gardening activities for those with disabilities. Jovial Concepts helps with gardens at home, businesses and schools.
As told in the video, "Valeria's Story", the kids in the neighborhoods are showing the adults how to get to know their neighbors and work together.
Kristina notes the health benefits of playing in the garden, even 10 minutes a day. By being out in the sun, taking a few minutes for you and nurturing something, "It's a world of difference."
Helping Garden Hosts Thrive
Jovial Concepts uses three strategies that differ from many of the other gardening organizations.
1. Keep It Simple
"We stay away from the fancy stuff," said Kristina. By not using trellises or fancy beds, the garden hosts are being taught methods that they can replicate easily later, without burdensome money or time requirements.
2. Three Years of Training
For 36 weeks each year, Jovial Concepts staff and volunteers work alongside garden hosts. The process is repeated for three years. This process provides hosts hands-on experience and support with every step of the annual gardening process. "Most of our garden hosts at year two to two and a half are really standing on their own two feet and having successful gardens on their own." And even beyond the three years, hosts can reach out for guidance.
3. Drip Irrigation for All Gardens
In order to conserve water, promote maximum yield, and overall success, Jovial Concepts installs a drip irrigation system in every garden.
The drip irrigation systems are expected to cut water use by 50 percent and save over 300,000 gallons of water annually. For these efforts, Jovial Concepts was recognized with a 2019 Water and Sustainability Innovation Award of Distinction from a partnership of Ewing Irrigation and the Audubon Society.
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Through its work with three schools, Jovial Concepts is helping kids experience key concepts around food, plants, environment and stewardship. These include Eagleton Elementary, Edgewater Elementary and Great Work Montessori.
So many school gardens struggle due to the lack of alignment of the outdoor growing season and the school year. Jovial Concepts uses an innovative approach that helps both the students and the garden hosts.
During the school year, students plant seedlings that grow in the school greenhouse. These tomato, eggplants, beans and other seedlings are then transplanted into the gardens in nearby neighborhoods. The students can continue to work with their plants by volunteering with Jovial Concepts throughout the summer.
This also provides an opportunity for students to do experiments as part of their science curriculum. Students do soil samples, observe the plant processes and learn the life cycles that create healthy food.
About the kids' experiences with the gardens, Kristina said, "They absolutely love it."
Even a kid who says he hates tomatoes will eat a tomato that he grew. "Once you build that relationship with food, you see the eating habits drastically change," said Kristina.
The Co-Op at 1st
Located in the Barnum neighborhood in West Denver, Colorado the Co-Op at 1st is a health and wellness cooperative. Opened in 2019, the Co-Op offers services for healthy minds and bodies, and was recently awarded Certifiably Green Denver certification. Tenants including ayurvedic doctor, naturopathic doctor, medical doctor, acupuncture, yoga, and Zumba, and a community market. The space also has a commercial kitchen and event space.
The Co-Op offers many services targeted to meet the needs of low-income families including signing up for energy bill assistance. The community grocery store also accepts SNAP food assistance, including the "double buck" program that helps SNAP recipients get access to Colorado-grown produce.
The Co-Op also offers donation-based community clinics, pop-up markets, and date nights. Beginning in Summer 2020, the Co-Op will be a host site for the Summer Food Program where kids can come by and get a healthy meal.
There's much more work to do. Kristina notes extremely high rates of food insecurity, diabetes and hypertension in the communities where they are working. She's hoping that more people will participate and turn attention to finding time for movement, cooking and making our health and wellness a priority.
Advice for Starting Something in Your Community
"Be determined!," said Kristina. If you want to start something, just ignore detractors who say you can't.
There are so many ways you can make a difference. Connect with the local sustainability community. Help kids in schools, change city policies or even start with growing something at your own home. Be part of a community garden or school garden.
Just as her mentor, Jeremy Gilley said, everyone can make a difference.
Kristina took that advice, too. Indeed, through food, gardens and a commitment to health and wellness on all levels, Jovial Concepts and the Co-Op at 1st are creating peace and community.
For information about volunteering, gardens or events at the Co-Op, visit www.JovialConcepts.org
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