From Gravel Lot to Garden of Possibilities

By Lauren Hoffmann | Posted on June 17, 2013

In the Village of Rosemont, Illinois there was once a gravel lot.  Probably a gravel lot just like you and I are used to seeing – lots of tiny stones worn down and ground up from car tires, dust and dirt when dry, mud and puddles when wet and certainly not a single blade of green outside of maybe the errant weed or two that pop up. In fact on this side of the Village – a village of just less than 2 square miles – there is little to no green space.

But this gravel lot in Rosemont had promise and was about to change all that.  You see, this lot was at the Rosemont Recreation Center under the watchful and thoughtful eyes of Omar Camarillo and Karen Stephens from the Rosemont Park District. The two knew this lot had to be something more for their community of less than 10,000 people with an average income under $25,000. And one day their answer came – a community garden.  

After Karen spotted the announcement of a community garden grant opportunity through the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and the Darden Foundation, she immediately picked up the phone and called Omar to encourage him to apply for the grant.  Omar agreed, and to their sheer joy they were selected to receive a Grow Your Park Grant.  

They quickly got to work revamping and transforming the lot into a suitable gardening space laying down seed and growing lush green grass, obtaining gardening supplies such as an outdoor gardening box that they filled with gloves, shovels and other communal tools.  They cleaned out the entire neighborhood Home Depot stores of their 8 foot by 4 foot raised garden boxes and installed them on the lot. To top it off, they installed a rain barrel to collect rain water to supply a sustainable water source for the garden plots. They also quickly got to work informing the community of their grant and the opportunity to claim one of the 24 available garden boxes.  Much to their surprise word spread quickly around the Village and 24 families signed up claiming each and every plot. 



Rosemont Park District's community garden - a gravel lot to garden of possibilities  


The Village of Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago positioned between O'Hare International Airport and the Chicago Loop, is about 95 percent Hispanic.  Culture and heritage definitely factored in to the acceptance of a community garden. 

“In the communities these families come from in Mexico, gardening is a significant part of the culture,” explained Omar Camarillo, life-long resident of Rosemont and Rosemont Recreation Center Director. “These community gardening plots enable families to pass on traditions to the younger generation while also giving them the fresh produce they need.  I see younger kids out here tending to the plots with their grandparents – it really is bringing the community together.” 

The families are growing tomatoes, peppers, radishes, onions, lettuce and more.  As part of the Grow Your Park Grant program through the Darden Foundation and NRPA, the families will donate a portion of the crops to a local charity to help other area families in need.  The gardeners all whole-heartedly agreed to the donation and were more than happy to share their bounty.     

On a recent visit to the Rosemont community garden, I got to see first-hand all the great work that the Park District did in getting the community garden set up and flourishing.  When we arrived we saw that plants were already growing and sprouting.  We were greeted by Rosemont residents Ken and Marjorie who both have plots and had come by to give their thanks for helping to make the garden possible.  For Marjorie, the garden is her little respite from the stress of losing her home and no longer having space to do what she loves most – gardening.  She and her son worked together this past Mother’s Day to set up her plot which is a mix of vegetables and flowers. 

Omar and Karen already have their sights set on next year and expanding the garden.  During our visit they shared their vision of rearranging the garden boxes to get in a few more rows of plots and of incorporating hydroponic lettuce on a perimeter fence as well as using the fence space to provide other helpful information. They are also hard at work arranging for local master gardeners and local college agriculture professors to come to the garden to provide workshops so people can learn gardening techniques and proper garden maintenance. 

It is amazing to see how a small grant can transform what was once a gravel lot into something that is exponentially giving back to the community and it is all because of two proactive Rosemont Park District employees.  This is a classic story of how one small park and recreation department is making a huge impact in improving quality of life – from health and wellness to conservation to social equity– this garden has it all.  

If you have a community garden, what are some of the ways your garden has helped to improve the community?  Did you have to overcome any challenges or renovations of space to install your garden?  What is something surprising you have learned from having a community garden?