A Garden Grows at the Mystic

A Garden, and Kids, Grow at the Mystic

A Welcome Project volunteer (l) with a Mystic Kids Garden youth (r)

This fall, three Somerville non-profits and the Somerville Housing Authority are celebrating an unusual harvest at the Mystic Housing Developments. Normally, of course, there’s a harvest of vegetables and flowers from the immigrant-led Mystic Community Garden. But this year, it’s something more – a harvest from seeds sewn through new programming for Mystic youth, and a harvest reaped from new collaboration among Somerville non-profits this spring and summer.

“We thought that a positive way to help the Housing Authority protect the new green space would be to enable Mystic youth to get their hands dirty as they learned more about their local environment,” said Warren Goldstein-Gelb.

Nearly two years ago, the Somerville Housing Authority finished a $3 million landscaping project at the Mystic. The SHA transformed fields of asphalt into grass and trees. But soon after the plantings, SHA staff grew concerned after finding some of the new plants had been damaged.

“We thought that a positive way to help the Housing Authority protect the new green space would be to enable Mystic youth to get their hands dirty as they learned more about their local environment,” said Warren Goldstein-Gelb, director of The Welcome Project, which manages the garden at the Mystic. “We already were working with young people in the Mystic Kids Garden, and we knew there were other groups who could help Mystic youth learn more about and connect with the land in their neighborhood.”

A Collaboration of "unlikely partners"

Enter the collaboration of some unlikely partners. The Welcome Project and Groundwork Somerville, seemingly worlds apart in mission and projects found themselves with common themes: the importance of nurturing community gardens in the city’s largest public housing development, and the need to encourage youth engagement and develop youth jobs in the community. The Welcome Project's mission is to strengthen civic and community life in Somerville by diminishing racism and empowering Somerville's refugee and immigrant groups. Groundwork Somerville, on the other hand, has the mission of creating sustainable communities through partnership with city agencies, other non-profits, businesses and residents.

“On Tuesday mornings, we added shrieks of kids to the usual sounds of the garden,” said Tai Dinnan, the Gardens Coordinator for Groundwork Somerville.

Mystic Kids GardenThe Mystic Kids Garden Flourishes

Together, The Welcome Project and Groundwork Somerville worked with youth aged 6-12 who were part of the Mystic Learning Center’s summer camp at the Mystic. Through the Learning Center’s Outdoor Club, young Mystic residents planted and maintained the Mystic Kids Garden – a garden plot in the Mystic Community Garden, which The Welcome Project manages. “On Tuesday mornings, we added shrieks of kids to the usual sounds of the garden,” said Tai Dinnan, the Gardens Coordinator for Groundwork Somerville who worked with Mystic Learning Center staffer Aaron Rockwood to connect Mystic youth with their natural environment. “We observed worms and compost critters, planted vegetable seedlings, watered our young but thriving plants, and were already harvesting cucumbers and greens within just two months of planting!”

“The whole activity trained not only the minds of youth but also trained the Green Team as future leaders,” said a student participant.

On one especially hot day in August, campers and the visiting Americorps NCCC crew felt a great sense of accomplishment after an especially fruitful garden work day. Along with Welcome Project volunteer Roberta Hayes and other community volunteers, they completed construction on compost bins and built three garden gates at the Mystic Community Garden. The Mystic campers also explored natural sites outside the Mystic community, traveling through Somerville to discover community resources such as the Growing Center and the Mystic River. “This place is cool,” one camper remarked, reflecting the views of many, after visiting the Growing Center. “We should come here again.” “It was great to see our youth exposed to and inspired by these natural resources within walking distance of their Somerville community,” said Fluffy Bergman, director of the Mystic Learning Center.

A Green Day at the Mystic

The program also took advantage of a mentorship model for a “Green Day at the Mystic” which coincided with the annual Mystic Providers Picnic. High school students who were members of Groundwork “Green Team” learned to be good teachers, and created a day of learning for all participants. Activities like Landscape Musical Chairs, Staircase Escape, and the Healthy Tree Game were invented and led by Green Team members. Learning Center participants were excited to learn from and play with their special guest teachers. The youth employees from the Groundwork Somerville Green Team had much to say about this summer of collaboration. As one student said about the youth-led Green Day @ the Mystic: “The whole activity trained not only the minds of youth but also trained the Green Team as future leaders.” The Somerville Housing Authority also commented on the value of this unique partnership. “This year, we didn’t see any significant incidents of vandalism or damage to the trees, shrubs or other plantings at the Mystic,” said Paul Mackey, Deputy Director of the Somerville Housing Authority. “I am sure that the programs these organizations developed for our youth was a critical piece of this positive change.” The growing season is over. But the families at the Mystic are still harvesting the benefits of some well planted programming.