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Making Cincinnati Life Better

Volunteers improve communities in Buckeye State

LaDonna Pope at the Walnut Hills community garden in Ohio, sponsored by AARP.

Photo by: Tom Smith

LaDonna Pope and other AARP volunteers help tend the Walnut Hills Community Garden. ‘It is a ray of sunshine,’ she said of the Cincinnati neighborhood’s green oasis.

It's a Saturday morning, and some 20 people fan out beneath a crystal blue sky to spruce up a community garden in Cincinnati's urban Walnut Hills neighborhood. The volunteers gravitate to work that suits them. Some uproot weeds, others clear brush from the fence, and a small group erects a tool shed.

"This is just such a blessing," said LaDonna Pope, who set all of this in motion by responding to an AARP Ohio survey seeking worthy projects.

See also: Good things you can do yourself.

The Walnut Hills Community Garden, a neighborhood fixture for 23 years, is one of a handful of projects in Ohio to win assistance from AARP as part of a national initiative to support projects that can have a lasting impact in a community. AARP members, community residents and leaders suggest the ideas; AARP works with community organizations to bring the ideas to reality.

Sharing the garden's bounty

Pope, 53, has been gardening here since 2004 but said she hardly eats any of what she grows. In addition to sharing with family and friends, Pope takes produce to residents in a nearby senior center.

So does William Hawkins, 77, a retired city worker and the garden coordinator. "We planted some extra vegetables this year to make sure they get a few more," said Hawkins, who also takes crops to a YMCA and is likely to share with anyone who asks.

"This is community at its best," said Kevin Craiglow, AARP Ohio associate director for community outreach who is coordinating the project initiative in Ohio.

One goal of the program is to encourage people to get involved in their communities, and some who turned out for the garden work were volunteering through AARP for the first time.

"I used to do a lot of volunteer work, and we're trying to get back into it," said Carl Iseman, 61, who lives about a mile away and volunteered at the garden with his wife, Diane, 60. "It's AARP, and it's something for our community. We thought, 'Gee, that's a double-whammy,' " he said.

Iseman is among those working on the shed, a key piece of the project because it's a lasting improvement and will allow the gardeners to safely store equipment.

Next: Intergenerational gardening. >>

Craiglow said Home Depot gave AARP a deal, which allowed the project's budget to stretch further.

The Walnut Hills garden, occupying two city lots, features 24 well-tended raised beds brimming with herbs, flowers and vegetables. In addition, there are several plots set aside as a children's garden, visited once a week by kids from the Cincinnati Early Learning Center next door.

Joan Shore, 63, lives about three miles away and visited the garden for the first time on the AARP volunteer day.

"I was shocked to see how well organized it is and the size of it in a city like this."

Shore, a University Hospital retiree, has volunteered in the past for various organizations but recently had not found anything of interest. AARP's appeal changed that.

Shore's first visit to the garden turned into several more during the growing season. "The call of the garden. I can't resist."

Dayton volunteer fair Sept. 21

Craiglow said more than 40 project ideas were submitted to AARP Ohio under the initiative. By early summer, AARP Ohio had settled on four and was considering two or three others.

One of the projects, a Volunteer Fair in Dayton, is 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Presidential Banquet Center in Kettering.

Prospective volunteers will have an opportunity to meet with representatives of organizations that need help, said Ed Cokley, 60, a Dayton-area AARP advocacy volunteer.

Habitat for Humanity, the Dayton Long Term Care Ombudsman's office and AARP are among the organizations that will have representatives on hand to discuss volunteering opportunities, Cokley said.

You may also like: Gardening with the generations. >>

Vince McKelvey is a writer living in New Lebanon, Ohio.

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