"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."
That quote by English poet, John Keats, is what Jack Hoeppner used to close out his presentation to Altona Town Council in fall 2020 where he unveiled the Altona Community Action Network's (A-CAN) vision for the future of the Altona Community Garden. "They took the bait," chuckled Heppner nearly four years later as the community gathered at the gardens for Saturday's grand opening celebrations of its new commons area, which includes a timber frame pavilion and washroom facility.
He explained, A-CAN had a vision for the area from the outset when it took over management of the community garden in 2017. What started out as a space in the middle of the grounds where gardeners could access tools, water and compost, quickly grew. A three-person task force was formed that year to further develop the garden nucleus and, in 2019, they added a crop swap table where gardeners could share their excess produce with one another. Eventually, Equal Access Altona caught wind of the task force's dream and approached it with the idea of building accessible garden beds. They were installed shortly after.
Then the pandemic hit in 2020, and while it presented its share of challenges, Heppner said the task force used the down time to further develop its vision for the space.
"One of the questions that gardeners often ask is, do you have washrooms? Where are the washrooms? You can only hide so much behind the corn," he joked. "And then we said, well, why don't we build a picnic shelter with the washrooms. And then we thought again, well, why don't we build a NICE picnic shelter with the washrooms. And then we said, well, why don't we build a BEAUTIFUL shelter and call it a pavilion? So, we brought various people on board to help us flesh out that vision."
Those people were James Friesen and Earl Dyck of Tinker Creek Timber Frame who designed and built the pavilion, as well as local landscape architect, Erin Sawatzky, who designed the grounds around the pavilion, and local plant expert, Gord Sawatzky, who brought those plans to life.
Now, visitors to the garden come in from the west through a park-like entrance, down a gravel path lined with plants, shrubs and benches before arriving at the pavilion which is flanked by garden plots to the north and south. A series of gravel paths continue throughout the middle, connecting to the accessible plots, a shed and a sandbox for the kids to enjoy!
"A lot of people have been involved at a lot of levels to bring it to where we are today," said Heppner. "A-CAN and a lot of volunteers have worked many, many hours to make this happen."
He added, the entire gardens and the dream of the commons area received a lot of encouragement and financial support from the community as well.
With $100,000 dollars in the bank in June 2021, the task force launched the commons area project, initially projected to cost around $142,000. "So, in faith, we kind of declared the project open. It'll happen somehow," said Heppner.
Later that month, the province kicked in $70,000 from the Manitoba Building Sustainable Community Grant program. "So, we forged ahead with considerable optimism in spite of a late start. We got a lot of groundwork done, underground water, sewer and hydro lines were installed and most of the cement work was completed that year."
In June 2022, James and Earl from Tinker Creek Timber Frame, along with some local help, erected the pavilion, and the washrooms were built.
Thinking there was plenty left in the bank account, the task force moved ahead with installing a footbridge and the gravel pathway to the pavilion. "But as you know, prices were really skyrocketing in that time so by the end of August, we noted with some dismay that our costs that outstripped our earlier estimates," said Heppner. "So, we went back to the community and raised a further fifty thousand dollars. Thank you so much."
By August 2023, again, the funds were tight, added Heppner. "Everything costs money these days. My goodness. We appealed to the Altona business community, raising an additional $5,500. Thank you so much to six businesses in town who stepped up."
"So, a big thank you to all who have walked with us these past years to see this project nearing its completion. Altona is a generous and welcoming community. There have been challenges along the way, of course, but we say without reservation it's been fun. And worth it. Thank you to all of volunteers."
In the end, the project's total price rang in around $220,000.
Altona Mayor, Harv Schroeder, marveled at the project's end result.
"When I look around today, it reminds me that it's more than just a garden. It's a testament (of what) we can achieve when we come together as a community. The community garden task force and A-CAN, gardeners, business sponsors and individual sponsors have all put their hearts into this project. From the very first shovel full of dirt, this is more than a garden. It's a symbol of a community that is connected to one another, to the earth and to the future. In the community garden more than just plants are grown. It's a place to grow friendships and a sense of connection and belonging. The garden is maintained by people from different cultures and different generations and different backgrounds. This beautiful pavilion is the center of this community, where people can grow together."
Nkwazi Mhango is one of those gardeners. He uses his plot to grow fresh fruits and vegetables to feed his family. The garden has also become a place to meet new people, despite having lived in Altona for the past 14 years.
“For me this garden is like a school. I see insects working, human beings working, I see biology. I see the interaction of humans of various types, various ages, together,” he said, adding it also a place where people are introduced to new foods. “For example, this year I grew okra and one person, my neighbour in the garden, came to me said, ‘what is this?’ What can I say? I said, ‘it’s okra.’ So, this told me that we don't have only the culture of people. We also have the culture of food, the culture of ideas and such kind of things.”
For Jonah Langelotz, a member of A-CAN, the community garden and the commons area are the group's greatest accomplishment to date.
"I recall being at a meeting at the time where the idea was being discussed and we all thought, what's the worst thing that could happen? At the time, few people were thinking about the best-case scenario, and yet here it lies before us."
"What makes this place special, though," he added, "is that it truly is a community space where different people come together and real connections take place over something so simple, yet so profound - food. I don't think this has ever been as important as it is today. The world around us tells us to take care of ourselves and our families. Be wary of your neighbour. Take care of what you what you need and that's it. This place reminds us how important it is to look outside of ourselves to what lies beneath our feet, and the people who have real gifts and needs around us."
Langelotz took the opportunity on Saturday to issue a challenge to the community.
"What is the next project in our community that looks like this and who are the people going to be who lead it together? Look at we can what we can accomplish when we come together and think of a vision and put it into practice and put our our needs to the back and put the needs of others and those around us to the forefront. So, let's work together to make our community a place of real connection and abundance for all as we move forward together."
And the work at the garden isn't finished yet.
Hoeppner said a few paths still need gravel and an accessible garden for people who use walkers still has to be built. With about $188 left in the bank, the task force continues to accept donations.
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