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City Programs Educate Children on Nature Conservation and Gardening

Sustainable food systems did not cross L’Oreal Hawkes-Williams’ mind until she saw a news report on a lettuce recall from E.coli contamination. That news story changed Hawkes-Williams’ life when she realized that she had no control over the food that she was giving her children to eat.

“It inspired me to return to school and provide education to people of color on sustainable food and gardening practices.”

Hawkes-William went on to study ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan and is now the founder and executive director of N.E.W. L.E.A.F. Detroit, an environmental organization that provides hands-on learning on ecology and sustainable food systems. 

Hawkes-Williams works in conjunction with Voices for Earth Justice, located at the Hope House & Garden in northwest Detroit where she was once an intern. Hawkes-Williams’ son, Corey Watkins, 19, a student at Wayne State University, raked leaves nearby in the garden that volunteers are designing at the Hope House & Garden. Sustainable gardening practices are used, meaning that volunteers make homemade compost.

Corey Watkins, 19

“Food is medicine,” said Hawkes-Williams. “This garden is for the neighborhood and the ultimate goal is for Detroiters living here to use the garden because it is their space.” Programs for children include an ecology club for children to learn sustainable organic gardening. 

Executive Director, BT Irwin, joined Voices for Earth Justice after working for six years for Habitat for Humanity and doing consulting work with nonprofit organizations.

“We host youth volunteers in our neighborhood garden. Ages range from elementary through high school,” said Irwin.

During the pandemic, Irwin simplified the organization’s crop plan to distribute food through Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry. He hopes that as life returns to normal, Voices for Earth Justice can do more with children and households in the neighborhood to work in the garden. 

In addition to the neighborhood garden, Voices for Earth Justice hosts regular Wonder Walks at parks throughout southeastern Michigan led by nature and spiritual guides that people of all ages can join. A third program that Irwin has brought back this summer is in-person Sunday Dinners at the Hope House & Garden. At Sunday Dinners, presenters share information on topics like beekeeping, community organizing, rain catchment, and irrigation. In recent years, two Bees in the D beehives were installed at Hope House & Garden to contribute to pollinator health in Detroit. Irwin plans to eventually offer beekeeping training and pollinator workshops.

“The Bees in the D partnership gets to the heart of what Voices for Earth Justice is trying to be: A catalyst and cultivator for a growing earth justice ecosystem in northwest Detroit,” said Irwin. 

On the other side of town, Detroit Abloom is a flower farm and sanctuary garden in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. Director Tom Milano and volunteers worked this spring and summer on 18 vacant lots to create a flower farm and wellness center. Milano has a myriad of ideas to bring the community to the garden including events on monarch butterfly conservation, garden composting, and education programs on native plants and harvesting vegetables. Detroit Abloom also does programs with Bees in the D and is working with other local organizations to provide workshops to all ages on healthy living, yoga, and meditation. 

Tracey Niyo of Berkley and her two school-aged children Sam and Cami were at Detroit Abloom helping with planting a vegetable garden. Niyo found Detroit Abloom while looking to buy pollinator plants. Her family now visits Detroit Abloom regularly where they maintain a garden plot in exchange for two hours of community service each week.

“My daughter and I do a lot with caterpillars and butterflies,” said Niyo. “We help with building the children’s garden, weeding, and planting.”

More community spaces that promote sustainable living are being cultivated throughout the city of Detroit. After over a year of being indoors due to the pandemic, it is a welcome opportunity for the city’s children to learn about their natural surroundings and self-sustainability through safe outdoor educational programs.

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