A teacher carefully leads her thirty preschoolers across the road from Loving Hands Montessori Preschool to St. Peter’s Organic Victory Garden just as the warmer months start approaching. Stephanie Campbell, the Garden Coordinator, greets them, eager to share her knowledge and love of nurturing the garden.
“The preschoolers are enthralled by the farm. They point out the strawberries and carrots, but don’t recognize the beets, cauliflower, or cantaloupe. So much is new for them. I gesture to a few bees and butterflies to explain the importance of pollination and how we must all work together to nurture God’s wonderous creation through patience and participation.”
Stephanie nurtured the garden through a strange year – many communities longed for connection, but the pandemic necessitated separation. With our communities beginning to reopen, the garden can assume its position as space for rich community engagement. Parishioners of St. Peter’s and other locals gather to garden, experience nature, socialize, and share ideas and faith.
The farm has been fully transformed by volunteers into an inclusive space with raised garden beds and growing fields for an abundance of fresh produce. Dermot McGrath, a volunteer parishioner, built a Prayer Garden this summer. The Bird and Butterfly Garden is a designated as nationally registered Monarch waystation and functions as a Sensory Garden. Gardening plots are for sale and sometimes donated to community groups including the Scouts, veterans, special education high-schoolers, and faith-based groups.
However, revitalizing the garden has not come without its challenges. “My faith has grown with this garden,” Stephanie reflects. “Watching people suffering and in pain during the pandemic and witnessing our work come to a halt was not easy. But this garden and the resources and encouragement from Episcopal Ministries encouraged me to keep tilling the soil and trust in God. I’m still searching for ways to touch even more lives.”
Recalling one of many drives she took with her son to deliver some of the garden’s fresh produce to Christ Church in Brentwood, Stephanie’s usually warm demeanor turns somber. Before one of her weekly delivery trips, she considered not going due to an ongoing serious thunderstorm. “I remember thinking to myself in the car: it’s only a few minutes, I’ll make it.” But when she pulled up to the drop off site, Stephanie saw people walk out in their soaked jackets to pack up her produce and bring it home to their families.
“That day really touched me. So often, we get wrapped up in our own little bubbles and we’re blinded to the inequality in our own communities. We really don’t see how tough people have it. At the garden, people give of themselves for others, even when they might be struggling. Sitting there in the rain, I realized how the garden is not simply a community space, but it is a powerful metaphor for what it means to be Christian – to put your love, time, and effort towards into a project that will benefit a neighbor you might not even know. That’s how we’re called to love each other.”
The garden also has a special relationship with Island Harvest Food Bank, a community organization that gets farm produce to families experiencing food insecurity. In addition to regular deliveries to the food bank, last fall, garden volunteers were able to grow over 300 feet of pumpkins to be sold. One particularly large pumpkin was raffled off by Loving Hands Preschool. The proceeds from the raffle and pumpkin sale were donated to Island Harvest, along with non-perishable food donations from the parishioners at St. Peter’s.
There truly is something for everyone at the garden and Stephanie is always on the look out for new volunteers and community partnerships. The veterans at St. Peter’s take care of specific plants or a raised bed to ensure accessibility to all. High school volunteers often help with seasonal clean ups, constructing new raised beds, and packing up donated produce. Garden volunteers are always looking for ways to upcycle, recycle, and utilize the land effectively, so planting occurs at multiple points of the year.
“Without this grant, the garden wouldn’t be possible,” Stephanie remarks. “Things like this don’t just happen. People need to come together and put in the work to make them happen. I have had to hold on to my faith through an abundance of challenges this year and I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m going to make this count.”
Stephanie Campbell wishes to thank Bishop Itty, Brian Clark, and the parishioners of St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church for their ongoing advice, encouragement, and support of the garden.
If you would like to get involved at the garden, visit the St. Peter’s by-the-Sea website for contact information.
This initiative was funded by Episcopal Ministries of Long Island’s Parish Mission Grants. Episcopal Ministries is deeply grateful to Stephanie Campbell for her work and for this interview. You can learn more about how Episcopal Ministries is resourcing and amplifying ministries across Long Island on our website and make a gift to support this work.