Topeka Capital-Journal, July 23, 2020 See original article

For Carlos Kelly and Topeka High’s Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas students, the last couple of months have been all about planting a seed.

Since mid-May, Kelly and fellow JAG-K career specialist Teresa Leslie-Canty have been working with a group of Topeka High JAG student volunteers to build and now maintain an urban garden in central Topeka.

Now the dream is for that first garden to grow into a much bigger project to benefit local residents.

“It was something fun that we had planned for a long time and we were waiting until the spring, but the COVID situation happened and made it hard to do,″ Kelly said.

“It was something we could do with social distancing easily and wear a mask, but with policies being in place, you couldn’t go here or go there and couldn’t associate with the students face to face because there was just so many unknowns, so we had to wait. But as soon as we got the OK, we jumped into it.″

With Kelly, who has worked in construction for more than two decades, leading the way, the JAG group, in partnership with Kansas State University, constructed a raised garden bed at Leslie-Canty’s residence near Chesney Park and planted a variety of fruit and vegetable plants.

Now the group is eager to watch the plants, and the urban garden program, take root and grow.

“This is just kind of like a small jumping-off point,″ said Kelly, who is also Topeka High’s head football coach. “We hope that in the future we can create a big place where people in the community can come. We’re wanting to build more gardens close to Topeka High.

“There’s people that live in apartment buildings and things like that, and if we could get an area donated and promised an urban garden, we could let people in the community start a tomato plant, grow some peppers, grow some melons, grow some cucumbers, all that kind of stuff, and kind of take ownership of it themselves and maybe be able to eat a little healthier.″

Kelly thinks the urban garden concept could be a real benefit for downtown residents who may not necessarily have easy access to fresh vegetables and healthy food options.

“We talked about where Topeka High is, how it’s kind of land-locked and a food desert,″ Kelly said. “We talked about fresh vegetables and things like that and where can you get them?

“If you want a salad where can you go? If you want some fresh produce, unless it’s on a Saturday morning and you have the Farmer’s Market, there’s not really a store nearby. The closest store is at 6th and MacVicar by Hummer (Sports Park).″

Kelly said building the urban garden has been an educational experience for the JAG-K volunteers, many of whom had no experience with such an endeavor.

“They got some hands-on experience with doing some things that were out of their element and it was great, learning life skills,″ Kelly said.

Kelly said he’s pleased with how the garden is progressing.

“There’s some pretty good peppers in there and the melons are going crazy,″ he said. “This is the first time I’ve had a garden with melons and pumpkins and all of that and those things take off and they need a lot of space.

“They’ve spilled outside the planter bed. It’s a learning process and the next time we do it, we’ll build a bigger planter garden.″

Of course, like all gardeners, the group doesn’t have a 100% success rate.

“K-State gave each of my students a pot that had a tomato plant and they were to try to grow that and then transfer it into a bigger pot,″ Kelly said. “Some of them have already killed theirs, but some of them are doing really well.

“Our ultimate goal has been to work with some of the nurseries and have some of those people come and work with my class and then get out of the classroom and do some hands-in-the-dirt learning.″

Kelly said he feels like the urban garden undertaking is another example of how the JAG program can benefit students, especially tackling the project in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“JAG helps them prepare for after high school and puts some tools in place for them to learn how to deal with things, like the COVID situation,″ Kelly said. “You can’t just complain, you have to adapt and move on.

“This is strictly about volunteerism and community awareness and life skills, being kind and learning how to work together.″