Saturday, August 14, 1999

This garden's victory is lasting hope

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The fighting has ceased in gardens across Cincinnati. Heat and sizzling sun have won. Veteran gardeners have thrown in the trowel. But Katie Parker fights on.

        All summer long she has made her way from her Avondale home, boarded a bus and stepped off in Over-the-Rhine. She makes the trip several times each week to tend a garden in the center of the city. It is not one she owns, nor one from which she harvests a single vegetable for her table.

        For three years, Mrs. Parker, 75, has been the chief keeper of the tiny, brave plot tucked behind the Over-the-Rhine Senior Center on Race Street. It is unarguably a city garden, surrounded as it is by asphalt and chain-link fence, overlooking nothing but alley.

        Mrs. Parker keeps all sorts of things alive there. Collard greens and cabbages. Hope and self-esteem. The memory of her daughter.

The message: Welcome
        Patricia Jenkins died three years ago, a visionary, vibrant woman whom her mother still describes as “a nice little girl, a free-hearted girl.” The garden her mother tends, sponsored by the Civic Garden Center's Neighborhood Gardens program, is named in her honor because she was once the director of the Over-the-Rhine center.

        Her name still brings a smile to the face of members who meet there for crafts, excursions and conversation. Patricia Jenkins did good work there, they say. She got senior citizens out of their homes, out of their isolation and into the center. She showed them what a community was, and how to become part of it.

        It was a pattern woven into Patricia Jenkins' life. As a social worker, she counseled AIDS patients at University Hospital and children at Lighthouse Youth Services. At Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship in Avondale, her ministry was music, and her message was the same: Come in, find your place here, feel welcome.

        Patricia Jenkins had a gift, and used it. She knew how to create places where hope could grow.

"Something special...'
        Now, every spring, a solitary figure begins the growing cycle again at the Patricia A. Jenkins Memorial Garden. Katie Parker drives downtown in her car, bringing her hoe and bags of good dirt. Before she plants, she prays.

        “I pray all the time for the garden and for anybody who uses a vegetable from it,” she says as she plucks tiny tomatoes from an overloaded plant. She prays the people at the center will be blessed by her efforts. She prays the garden will keep the memory of her daughter alive. And she prays that, by helping in the garden, the center's members will find meaning in their lives.

        It has been a good season in Patricia Jenkins' garden, perhaps because of her mother's prayers. Okra plants are 3 feet tall. Hot peppers drip from robust stalks. The smell of basil spices the air.

        “I like everything in this garden,” says Annie Shields, a member of the senior center and volunteer in the garden. “I like the collard greens. The onions are my favorite, fried with eggs with a little black pepper.”

        Beside her, Katie Parker smiles. “There's something special about a garden,” she says quietly. “You can see things growing. It gives people something to think about, brings back memories from their childhood. It shows that life goes on.”

        Charles Johnson, the center's manager, says his clients congregate in the garden, where there are tables at which to eat, vegetables to harvest and flowers to watch slowly unfold. The garden has become their haven, their place of peace and companionship.

        “This garden is very important,” he says. “It's a symbol to the people, especially in this low-income neighborhood. It's a sense of purpose, a sense that they've been struggling through all this mess, all this hell, but there's something here. There's a reason to hold on.”

c Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.