Broccoli in the barrio: Community Garden inspires healthy habits in seniors  

Jesse Montanez, left, and Sherilyn Strickland work on a new garden bed March 6 at the Madonna Center Community Garden. (Photo, Amanda Lozano)

The air is still crisp and spring is some weeks away as Sherilyn Strickland, the head gardener at The Madonna Community Center garden, works the dirt in a plant bed.

Nearby volunteer gardener Jesse Monpanez grabs a shovel and begins preparing dirt for planting. Around him, in several plant beds, various parsleys, lettuces, broccoli, beets, carrots, cilantro, cabbages and snow peas grow in abundance. The scent of pear blossoms and fragrant herbs fill the air.

Monpanez is one of the Center’s newest volunteers. For three weeks, he’s been coming twice a week to work in the garden.

“It’s a lot of fun, and its gets you moving,” he said, wiping his brow with his sleeve, “It feels good to be more active.”

“I really love it when the seniors are here,” Strickland said. “They enjoy the space, and they love eating the food. There’s a lot of things. It’s all organic, and you can’t get any fresher.”

The Madonna Community Center Garden is one of the Westside’s most obscure, yet productive community gardens. In a neighborhood where resources are sorely lacking and many are hesitant to try new foods it has served as a beacon to those willing to learn.

The garden is located catty-corner to the immensely popular Tacos El Rey. On the other side stands a car wash. Puro Westside. Speeding cars on Castroville Road pass by the garden. A large electrical tower overshadows the garden, blocking it from the view of the surrounding neighborhood. The garden remains largely unnoticed.

Despite enthusiasm, most of the seniors helping at the garden are inexperienced volunteers. Strickland, the single seasoned gardener, advises what, where and when to plant. They are preparing the soil for summer produce, says Strickland. The crew prepares the garden for planting cantaloupes, watermelons, and strawberries.

The garden is open to the community, and is always seeking volunteers to tend the garden, Their motto is, if you help plant it, you can take from it. Two years ago, the garden became an official program, and began receiving funding to keep its doors open.

The centers outreach is not just for seniors. It recently received a grant for youth, where children can take seeds home to plant and grow their own produce.

Every Tuesday and Friday morning, Strickland and volunteers gather in the morning to tend to their beloved garden. They pull out weeds, till the soil, harvest and water crops.

A place for gathering: 

Every Wednesday morning, the Madonna Center offers tai chi, yoga and healthy cooking demos to the neighborhood seniors. During the tai chi class, the seniors laugh and encourage each other. Classes focus on body, mind, and spirit. The cooking demos use produce grown and harvested at the centers garden.

Seniors practice Tai Chi at the Madonna Center March 7, before gardening. (Photo, Amanda Lozano)

“We’ve introduced them [the seniors] to a lot of things,” Madonna Center Senior Programs Director Martha Castilla said. “They really get excited to see something they’ve grown, and they’re happy. They tried it and they like it. When they see it grown, and see it prepared, and get to take some home, they get to share it with their families.”

Prior to joining the program, most of the seniors had not ever eaten kale or snow peas, and were hesitant to try new things, said Castilla. The cooking demonstrations quickly changed their minds.

She explained that the garden helped inspire some the seniors to plant their own tomatoes and produce at home. For Castilla, the most important thing is to engage the neighborhood seniors, get them to exercise, provide camaraderie and fellowship, and to provide information that improves overall health. She visits seniors door to door, and invites them to experience the program.

“No matter how well you eat or exercise, If you’re lonely or your spirit is broken or you aren’t engaged with others, your health is affected. It’s important to get them out, and together. You start doing things with new people, and seeing things grow, [gardening] is a miracle. It is something everyone needs to experience, and it’s even better at a community-wide level,” Castilla said.

Healing together:

With her sparkly eyes, bright red shirt, and enthusiasm, Minnie Gonzalez, 75, doesn’t let her walker stop her from picking cilantro in the garden. It’s unbelievable to imagine that only a year prior, she’d be at home crying.

Ask Minnie, and she’ll look you in the eye and quite frankly say it. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago, and she stayed at home taking care of him.

“At home, it’s so lonely. I was very depressed. Very, very depressed. I cried everyday,” Gonzales said. “I decided to come over here, and I changed a lot.”

Since being at the program, Gonzalez said she’s lost 10 pounds and that the program has helped her every step of the way. She claims the food they prepare is a main factor.

“When I eat this food, it helps me. I feel healthy,” Gonzales said. “It tastes good, and I like it.”

Longtime Madonna Center participant Juanita Balderas, 62, has encouraged many people to try out the program, and was the one who invited Gonzalez.

Balderas looks at her friend with affection, as Gonzalez pulls a large sprig of cilantro out of a garden bed. She holds the produce like a trophy in her hand, and explains she can’t wait to get home to prepare a dish with it.

“She [Gonzalez]looks better than the first time she came here,” Balderas said. “She looks better and talks to everybody. It’s definitely a change.”

  • Maria Alvarez, 80, picks a cabbage March 7 at the Madonna Center Community Garden. (Photo, Amanda Lozano)

David Guerrero contributed to this article.