Two Ypsilanti-area men are teaming up to spread community gardens throughout Ypsi and to help residents improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health – and they say that's just the start of a much bigger mission.
Ypsi Township resident Noah Rucker and Augusta Township resident Jasper Gary-Bey recently formed a group called Ypsi Kingdom Builders in an effort to fulfill their individual goals in tandem. Rucker's mission is create a health economics curriculum, while Gary-Bey's mission is to establish a larger number of community gardens throughout the Ypsi area. They've begun to act on those goals by taking key roles in two Ypsi community gardens, with the larger goal of establishing an organized group of Ypsi-area gardeners.
Rucker and Gary-Bey often describe their movement as "writing different chapters of the same book."
"We all have some different chapters that we can teach [and] that we are most definitely better at than each other, so it will be a beautiful book," Rucker says.
Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Growers Association, is a member of Ypsi Kingdom Builders but mainly serves in a mentor capacity for the two younger gardeners. His goal of creating a "world-class urban farm" that employs formerly incarcerated residents has already gained a lot of traction at Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, located at 1301 S. Harris Rd. in Ypsilanti Township.
"We have to [support each other’s goals] because they all work together," Gary-Bey says. "I couldn’t have what I have, [Rucker] couldn’t have what he has, and [Parson] can’t have what he has if all of us didn’t give a little piece of something to the other to make that other person’s project better. I mean, it’s all a circle of life."
Carrying the torch at Parkridge
In 2015, Parson created a community garden for the surrounding neighborhood on city-owned land next to Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., after the center's community development manager, Anthony Williamson, decided the empty lot should be put to good use. Both social workers, Parson was Williamson's intern at the time, and it just so happened that Williamson's idea to create the garden aligned perfectly with Parson's passion for gardening.
Parson managed the Parkridge Community Garden for two years until he had the opportunity to begin laying the foundation for his farm at Grace Fellowship. But he says he wanted to make sure the community garden didn't die when he moved on. Parson, who is black, says he also wanted to make sure that the garden would be enhanced by someone who looks like him.
This spring, Gary-Bey and Rucker assumed the task of managing the Parkridge Community Garden. The pair expanded the garden, with Gary-Bey taking over Parson's plot and Rucker creating a second plot. They also incorporated new elements, like a path made from rocks pulled from the soil and a fence made of branches and twigs.
"I’m blown away and awed by the work that you do over here: the way you engage the community, the way you set this space up in a really creative, artistic way," Parson says to Gary-Bey and Rucker as the three men survey the Parkridge garden together.
Reinvigorating Frog Island
At Frog Island Community Garden, Gary-Bey maintains two plots of land and has been gardening there for about two years, while Rucker maintains one plot of land and recently started gardening there.
Michelle Shankwiler, steward at Frog Island Community Garden, says Gary-Bey and Rucker "both seem like pretty stand-up guys." She references Gary-Bey's role in rescuing two children from a burning vehicle after a deadly crash in Augusta Township this April. The community garden then held a ceremony to dedicate the space to the children and their future in memory of their father who died in the accident, according to Shankwiler.
This year, Shankwiler named Gary-Bey her steward assistant. He now helps her by getting plots filled, making sure everyone stays up to code with the vegetation in their plot, looking for community resources, and other tasks.
"There’s been a lot of people who have been involved in Frog Island Community Garden," Shankwiler says. "But he’s the newest, most aspiring gardener who’s the most involved right now and I'm very thankful for that."
Shankwiler says Gary-Bey became heavily involved in the garden at a time when she was feeling really burned out after putting a decade's worth of effort into the garden. She says he's a motivating person who "lit a spark and got a lot more people involved."
Continuing to build
Gary-Bey's ability to motivate others should come in handy as Ypsi Kingdom Builders works to enlist new members. He believes the group would benefit by having more people involved because they can bring their own skills and goals to the table.
"If I’m good at something, or you’re good at something, and you’re good at something that I’m not very good at, then we should take all those little bitty pieces and build a bigger puzzle," Gary-Bey says.
Eventually, the duo hopes to serve as mentors to another gardener who will take over the Parkridge Community Garden, so Gary-Bey and Rucker can continue to develop land for gardening purposes. They would like to acquire land for the creation of more community gardens, as well as help people set up personal gardens in their own backyards.
Williamson says he wants to personally make an effort to inform residents about the Parkridge Community Garden and get them involved in it, so Gary-Bey and Rucker are able to move onto other projects. He says since the surrounding community is considered at-risk, it can greatly benefit from programming that encourages residents to lead healthier lifestyles by teaching them how to grow and use their own produce. He says those types of initiatives should always have a home in Parkridge Community Center.
"Things that are needed in this community, this is the place where they should emanate from," Williamson says. "This is the community center."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.