Gardopia, a nonprofit that builds community gardens to educate the population on health and wellness through gardening, celebrated its one-year anniversary on Saturday. Since its official founding in May of 2015, Gardopia has created eight independent gardens at schools, low-income housing projects, and on street corners on San Antonio’s Eastside in order to grow food where people need it.

Saturday’s event took place at Gardopia’s new flagship garden on the corner of Nolan Street and North New Braunfels Avenue. This Eastside neighborhood is known to have one of the highest drug and violent crime rates in the city. Adjacent to the garden is the Handy Stop, a convenience store whose perpetual nighttime attendees often warrant visits by law enforcement officers.

The garden is a physical representation of the same momentum that led to the huge federal Promise Zone investment just a few years ago. With more than 20 irrigated raised beds and a chicken coop made from recycled pallets, the property holds the potential to grow and yield a significant amount of healthy food – the community just has to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty.

Stephen Lucke, founder and president Gardopia, is a University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) graduate who helped create an on-campus community garden while enrolled in the university’s nutrition program. In 2013, while he was still in school, he also helped build a small garden of five raised beds at the Ella Austin Community Center. Over the years, that space has flourished to more than 20 beds with annuals, perennials, and a new metal sculpture.

Gardopia was incorporated in May 2015 and has aided the creation of gardens at Ella Austin, UIW, Bowden Elementary, Sam Houston High School, the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, and Alamo Heights Junior School. The organization has also been instrumental in work at community gardens around the city from downtown’s Little Patch Garden to the San Antonio Housing Authority’s Sutton Oaks housing complex. Gardopia recently gained 501(c)(3) status, which increased its eligibility for grants and tax deductible donations.

(Read More: Downtown’s Little Patch Garden: A Lot of Heart on a Small Lot)

Clad in his trademark overalls at Saturday’s celebration, Lucke thanked all of the volunteers and donors for their support and outlined an optimistic future for the garden and the community around it.

“Childhood poverty, drug addiction, obesity – these are problems that aren’t specific to San Antonio,” he said. “This corner on North New Braunfels and Nolan exists in every city in the United States. With community gardens and urban farms, we can change the lifestyle and create accessibility for a better way.”

Gardopia founder Stephen Lucke thanks attendees at the one-year anniversary party. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Gardopia founder Stephen Lucke thanks attendees at the one-year anniversary party. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

When the Promise Zone was created, three grants were delivered to the community. The Promise Grant came from the Department of Education, the Choice Grant came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Byrne Grant came from the Department of Justice. While the Housing Authority received the majority of said total funding – most of it intended for infrastructure development like housing complexes and school renovations – a percentage of it was allocated to community development projects.

One of those projects was a series of land management agreements that the Housing Authority took on to improve private properties whose owners were being negligent. The property that Gardopia sits on now was a vacant lot marred by homeless camps and rampant drug use. When Lucke proposed a community garden on the space, the Housing Authority granted them use of the land free of charge.

Saturday’s event, attended by members of the Eastside community as well as garden supporters from around the city, presented a stark contrast from the space’s recent past. Attendees ate juicy local watermelon and drank aguas frescas with a shared enthusiasm for healthy change. Soft singing and smooth saxophone music oozed from the garden’s speakers  and echoed through the nearby city streets.

In the next five months, Gardopia hopes to raise between $25,000 and $100,000 to expand the garden, build an outdoor kitchen, a performance stage, and aquaponics system, an outdoor gym, and model tiny houses. Community members will have the option to  adopt garden plots to develop personal investment in the garden.

Those interested in donating can contribute at Gardopia’s Start Some Good page where its fundraising campaign continues through Aug. 1. Those interested in adopting a garden plot or contributing to Gardopia’s 10-year plan can contact the organization here.

“I did not expect the support (for Gardopia). I just knew I wanted to do something and continue with it,” Lucke said. “I’m not a business man and it’s been a struggle with the organizational structure. There have been a lot of times when I wanted to quit. But we created those partners, worked with the youth. The energy, the hope, the role modeling, the education makes it all worth it.

“As long as we’re consistent and do what we do we’ll get more recognition, get more partners, and get more funding, we’ll get more done.”

Top image: Kionna Dow runs through the gardens at Gardopia while her sister Breonna and brother Kaldric look on.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. 

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Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.