Mary A. Wagner wants everyone in her community to have access to healthy food. As a member of Woodlawn’s first WeTHRIVE!℠ team, she helped start a community garden in 2010. “It was very successful,” she said. “We donated the harvest to local daycares and churches, trying to get healthy food to those who need it.”
For a variety of reasons, that garden didn’t last. Mary has been trying to start a new one ever since. “I am very persistent,” she said. “But I was becoming discouraged.” Still, she did not give up and last spring, the Woodlawn WeTHRIVE! team launched a new community garden.
“Mary’s passion behind the garden lit a flame in everybody else who was at the table,” said Cristie Iwasko, health educator with Hamilton County Public Health (HCPH). “The WeTHRIVE! team was inspired to think of ways to not only collaborate with other entities in the community, but also to explore opportunities for funding and partnerships with local businesses.”
Fire department makes a dream come true
Mary’s determination inspired the Woodlawn Fire Department to get involved. “I knew Mary’s story and knew she’d been in the community a long time and I really just wanted to give her something positive,” said Katie Thielmeyer, a firefighter/paramedic and WeTHRIVE! team member.
With support from Fire Chief Amos Johnson, Katie got funding for the garden from the Woodlawn Firefighters Association and Wyoming Veterinary Clinic. “My priority was to make sure Mary got the types of plants she wanted and got to see it happen and watch it thrive,” Katie said.
Woodlawn Elementary School let the team use a small plot of land behind the school. The WeTHRIVE! team and volunteers from the fire department turned the grassy area into a garden bed. They removed the sod, tilled the soil, and put up fencing.
Mary said she can’t thank the fire department enough. “They were so amazing it was unreal,” she said. “To the Woodlawn Fire Department, you made an old lady’s dream come true!”
Recreation Center’s campers plant & tend garden
Mary’s passion also motivated Woodlawn Parks & Recreation Director Steve Sanders, who serves on the Woodlawn WeTHRIVE! team. With the garden located near the Woodlawn Recreation Center, children attending the center’s summer camp were able to get involved. Program Director Ericka Tye had staff incorporate the garden into the camp’s curriculum. Staff and campers planted vegetables and tended the garden throughout the summer.
Mary loved working with the children. “We told them that we are giving you a life skill,” Mary said. “It was great. The kids were positive … they told their parents about it and some brought their relatives to see the garden.”
Each child planted a vegetable, marking the spot with their name so they could watch it grow. “They were amazed every week when they … saw the garden growing,” Steve said. When the vegetable they planted was ready to harvest, they took it home to eat it with their family.
Engaging the community
Chief Johnson used the garden as an opportunity to interact with the summer camp kids. He, Katie, and other fire and EMS volunteers helped on planting day. They brought the fire truck and let campers use the fire hose to water the garden. “When we were doing the garden and the kids were watering with the hose, Chief Johnson said this is what he saw as a young firefighter in Woodlawn,” Cristie explained. “Back then, the fire department was out doing stuff with the kids, and he wants it to be like that again.”
Off to a great start
Mary hopes the garden will grow larger each year. “My dream is this — to go door to door taking fresh vegetables to some of the elderly or handicapped residents in the village, to those who would have a difficult time getting fresh vegetables.”
With Mary’s vision and the support she inspires, there’s no doubt her dreams will continue to come true. She is quick to give credit to the people and organizations that made the garden possible, but she was thrilled to be recognized recently by Woodlawn Mayor Susan Farley and village council.
“Because of the garden, our village recognized us and the hard work we put in to it,” Mary said. “They gave us a reception and a sign. They named the garden after me — how about that?”
Plans are already in the works for year two of Miss Mary’s Community Garden!
It takes a village! The story of Miss Mary’s Garden is one of collaboration and community spirit. “When I looked at the long list [see below] of organizations, partners, and Village of Woodlawn entities that came together at the table for this one garden, it blew my mind in terms of the opportunities that exist when we can work together,” said Cristie Iwasko of Hamilton County Public Health.
“It also took a whole lot of hard work to get all those people at the table, but the perseverance Mary inspired really helped everyone try to figure out how to make it happen,” Cristie said.