Gardening with Cornerstone rebuilds lives
It’s taken Sylvester “Jimmy” Jones much effort to change a 40-year lifestyle of drug abuse and imprisonment, but he’s finally making inroads through Cornerstone Builders, an AmeriCorps program affiliated with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“I thank God every day for this program,” Jones said. “I’ve been blessed. Doors had been closed to me until I found out about this. I had exhausted all my doors to find employment. Getting with Cornerstone has opened doors for me.”Jones was at the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse July 31 tending a Cornerstone Builders community garden – a skill he said he perfected at Angola State Penitentiary – when Archbishop Gregory Aymond and USDA under-secretary Kevin Concannon paid a visit.
Concannon, a Catholic, was in New Orleans that day speaking at a National Medical Association convention and took time to witness the United States Department of Agriculture’s impact in New Orleans by visiting several Catholic Charities’ sites.
“We’re using ex-offenders and rehabilitating them as farmers to benefit the neighborhood,” Ronnie Moore, Cornerstone Builders’ director, said. “The key thing to Cornerstone is the philosophy of civic justice, which means rehabilitation through service. It’s a spiritual and therapeutic process they are going through. You see how service moves them from selfishness (from taking) to giving. That is a big philosophical shift for them. The concentration is giving to others.”
Nuns saw ministry opening
Moore said the Sisters of the Holy Family became a partner with the agency about two years ago. In addition to growing peppers, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and all types of greens in the garden for distribution to the poor, Cornerstone participants have planted fig, lemon, lime and Mexican plum trees at the motherhouse and renovated the Sisters of the Holy Family’s St. John Berchmans building.
Moore said the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center serves as consultants to develop the nuns’ gardens, and Parkway Partners provide free seed and fruit trees.
Congregational leader Sister Eva Regina Martin mentioned that the Sisters of the Holy Family provide approximately three-quarters of an acre of land for the Cornerstone gardening program. As the men till the soil, the nuns work their kindness in their souls.
“With ex-offenders, you can give them back their lives,” Sister Eva Regina said. “It’s connected with life – you value the life of the person and help give them something valuable so they can see they can do something.”
“The atmosphere here is so pleasant,” Jones, 62, said about the motherhouse in New Orleans East. “The sisters appreciate everything we do and make sure we have water (when working the gardens).”
Receives USDA commodities
Concannon visited other Catholic Charities sites that benefit from USDA food commodities including Food For Families/Food for Seniors warehouse in New Orleans East. He also dined at Cafe Hope in Marrero where he met with representatives of other Catholic Charities programs, including Mike Kantor of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana with whom he spoke about the changes in the Farm Bill and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Deacon Garland Bourgeois of Des Allemands, who is working on urban farming initiatives; Al Robichaux, executive director of the Jefferson Council on Aging and Howard Rodgers of New Orleans Council on Aging (with whom Catholic Charities works through the Meals on Wheels); and Janet Sanderson, chief operating officer of the archdiocese’s School Food and Nutrition Service Inc.
While on the lunchtime tour of Catholic Charities’ sites, Concannon spoke about sweeping changes to improve child nutrition in USDA Food Nutrition Programs that include school lunches and breakfasts and also in the Special Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The impetus for the changes came from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act taking effect this year, he said.
The changes mean more healthy fruit and vegetable offerings for students participating in archdiocesan cafeteria programs, Sanderson said. In the archdiocese, 16 percent of students participating in the National School Lunch Program receive a free lunch and 4 percent receive lunch at a reduced cost, Sanderson said.
Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, said Concannon’s visit shed a light on the good works of the church with the UDSA’s help.
“It was a great listening session and idea exchange at the lunch,” Wadge said. “USDA is probably our biggest government partner. Food for Families and Food for Seniors is largest food program in the state providing a monthly food box of about 24 nutritional meals to 65,000 seniors in 64 civil parishes in Louisiana. Its sister program is Second Harvest, which is a distributor of USDA commodities to 200 not-for-profit agencies in 23 civil parishes.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.