As a child being growing up in Englewood, Cordia Pugh has fond memories of working alongside her grandfather, a farmer from Mississippi who had moved to the South Side, planting tomatoes, lettuce and flowers to transform their tiny yard into a lush garden.
Fast-forward almost 50 years, and today, this mother of five, grandmother and retired executive assistant for the MacArthur Foundation, is being lauded May 7, 2016 by the EarthHeart Foundation for bringing her powerful voice – and her trowel to plant vegetable seedlings and hope on a stretch of land where drug kingpins once ruled.
Planted in 2011, today, the Hermitage Street Community Garden, a family allotment garden in Englewood, has more than 60 gardeners and a waiting list of another 60, demonstrating that those who live in Englewood are determined to give new life to their community by replacing cheap, fast foods, with healthier fare.
The project, and a nearby meditation garden for veterans, speak volumes about Pugh’s efforts to greatly improve the health of the urban poor through her efforts to plant gardens with fresh fruits and vegetables to feed residents in her neighborhood. Her idea was simple: to connect people in this urban food desert to nature.
“It’s not what you plant, it is what you grow,” says Pugh. “We are growing hope, collaboration, friendships and a safe haven in Englewood. The garden also helps to offset hunger, food desert issues and food insecurity and to turn this corner into a bounty of greens for our tables.”
Gardeners are a hardy species, and those who work alongside Pugh at the Hermitage Street Community Garden are too. In addition to planting, the garden leaders also offer workshops about starting seeds, composting, growing herbs, vegetables and their own organic groceries, plus how to cook the nutritious vegetables.
“Gardening grew me,” Pugh says talking about her early years alongside her grandfather and grandmother who raised her. “I have always gardened in flower pots and raised beds in my own yards. Then the idea came on me to see if I could start a project whereby others in the community could also enjoy what I found rewarding, gardening. In 2011 we were allowed to start the Hermitage community Gardens project with a group of about 12 to 15 residents. “
The property was donated to the group through Openlands and the crew set out to clear the piles of trash and tires themselves.
“We cleared the land by hand, it looked like a jungle, piled with trash and tires,” she says. They built the raised beds and hauled in soil and compost. Today, they’ve expanded the garden with the help of students at Lindbloom Math and Science Academy.
“We also developed the Englewood veteran’s meditation garden last year for service persons who have served our nation in the Armed Forces,” she says. “The garden is very therapeutic for the vets and allows them to grow organic produce as well.”
Looking ahead, Pugh says she hopes to model to the Englewood community that everyone can make a difference.
“Small accomplishments matter,” she says. “I have a saying that I subscribe to – ‘Many hands make the load light!’ We all can have a hand in making Englewood a viable community again. “
She’s especially grateful for groups like EarthHeart for “empowering mothers and demonstrating that mother’s matter,” she says. “Mothers are children’s first nurturers, teachers, doctors and advocates. EarthHeart helps demonstrate for all that mothering matters.”