Warrendale community garden offers a connecting space in a year of social distancing

This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

Barb and Joe Matney are in the final stages of putting their community garden in Warrendale “to rest” for the winter season, after a year they couldn’t possibly have predicted. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, the couple’s green space on the city’s western limits played a role in their neighborhood that highlighted just how much of a connecting factor community projects like their's are.

With donations from St. Christine Christian Services, and help from a former resident who had reached out after following the garden project on Facebook, the Matneys set up a food distribution program at In Memory of Community Garden on Minock Street and Whitlock Avenue. 

“It started with two to three times a week,” Barb Matney says. “We would go get items, which varied from sweets, meats, bread, clothing, and we set up a table and did boxes saying ‘free food.’ ”

As the weather turns colder, they have partnered with nearby church, Saints Peter and Paul, to continue distributing on Saturdays from the location's activity center, announcing donations on social media. They've seen up to 100 people show up on distribution days and local businesses also chipped in, supplying a total of over 500 pizzas for residents. 

“It was appreciated,” says Matney. 

Building a resilient space

The In Memory Of Community Garden is well-positioned to help during the crisis, but it comes from years of forging connections. The Matneys purchased two vacant lots behind their home in 2016 to establish a nonprofit, neighborhood vegetable garden where residents have access to fresh produce in exchange for volunteer hours or a donation. The concept quickly gained traction. 

With grant funding, they purchased several more vacant lots, one across the street to establish a children’s park and others across Whitlock Avenue to plant an orchard. As well as growing apricots, cherries, apples, and plums (courtesy of trees donated by a neighbor), they have built a greenhouse and added a flower garden in memory of military veterans and lives lost, like Joe Matney’s cousin, on 9/11.

Now, supported by around 10 volunteers who live within walking distance of the garden, phase two has started on the park grounds, with a playscape and swings going in at the Minock-Whitlock Park last year. This year, the Matneys added monkey bars, a log hop, a teeter-totter, an Appalachian climber, and — in an effort to cater to some of the youngest community members — two spring animals, an inch-worm and a butterfly. 

Neighborhood children are, Barb Matney admits, their harshest critics. 

“The kids are all very verbal,” she says. “They don't hesitate to tell you what they think. We didn't have anything for the toddlers, so it was important to add those animals.”

It takes a village

The Matneys were able to double the size of the Minock-Whitlock Park with help from the Detroit Residents First Fund, a connection they made when they were recognized in the latest cohort of Detroit Innovation Fellows. The fellowship connects neighborhood leaders and Barb Matney says it meant a lot to be chosen.

“I post the things we do but you never know who is watching,” she says. “Meeting others across the city doing the same kind of work is awesome. Finding out how they started, what they are doing now, hearing how they got where they are and hearing plans for the future lets you know we are all like-minded people out for the same goal.”

The fellowship also comes with a $10,000 grant to help innovators grow their vision, and phase three of the Matneys' project will begin soon. It includes putting in outdoor gym equipment and looking for ways to better connect young people with elderly residents. 

“We have stuff for young kids, and teens, but now we want to involve parents and grandparents,” says Barb Matney. “I want everyone to belong.”

“That’s where all of our history is, and if our youth are not spending time with their elders all of that will be gone.”

Doubling down during COVID-19 

This year COVID-19 meant that the volunteer pool was reduced and a lot of the garden work fell on the Matneys themselves. They supplied hand sanitizer at the park, and were grateful when they witnessed local families showing up armed with Lysol to wipe down equipment to help keep risks reduced. 

“We were calling out ‘thank you’ from across the street,” Barb Matney says. “Kids still need to play, you can’t keep them cooped up.”

The pandemic didn’t stop progress though, and this year a pavilion was finished at the park, complete with a picnic table and solar-powered USB charging ports. A nearby rain garden, established with the help of a Friends of the Rogue initiative to prevent lake pollution from the overflow of stormwater, adds an educational element for young visitors.

“The kids are curious,” says Barb Matney. “They ask questions, and we are getting signage to explain the rain gardens.”

A new pavilion provides solar-powered USB charging ports for visitors to the Minock-Whitlock Park in Warrendale.

Keeping residents connected

Rain garden workshops at the site this year were one of the few ways residents could continue to safely connect during the pandemic. The Matneys teamed up with the Erb Family Foundation, Sierra Club, Land+Water Works Coalition, and Friends of the Rogue to host three workshops through August and September. More than 20 participants learned about rain garden purposes, design, maintenance, and selecting Michigan native plants.

"There is a huge need for Detroiters, everyone really, to keep rainwater runoff out of the combined sewer system in an effort to protect and improve the Rouge River," says Cyndi Ross, program manager from Friends of the Rouge.   

"Having dedicated volunteers out for the workshops and the planting was a great way for neighbors to get together during COVID-19," says restoration assistant Jaclyn Heikkila.

The kind of learning space In Memory Of Community Garden provides hasn’t always been available for residents. Barb Matney grew up in Warrendale and met Joe when she attended Cody High School. The pair raised their two sons in the area and have witnessed the changes in their neighborhood, and not necessarily for the better. 

“When we started five years ago no one was outside,” Barb Matney says. “Their blinds were closed. Now kids are out walking, blinds are open, people are sitting on their porch.”

Despite the challenges, the pair wouldn’t have it any other way and never considered moving.  

“Being a lifer here, I don't know anything but here,” Barb Matney says. “Growing up here, I watched it fall and I am really glad we can be part of seeing it come back to life.”

“I have people from other areas who come to check out our space and they want to know how we did it. We all have worked together. The cities and the communities are not going to change unless we do.”

The New Economy Initiative (NEI) is a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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