Omaha Home for Boys Returns to Gardening Roots
By Amber Partin
A unified cheer rang out on the green slopes of Inspiration Hill. It was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new community garden, aptly named Inspiration Garden, at the Omaha Home for Boys (OHB), in Omaha, Nebraska.
Seventy years earlier, Inspiration Hill had been part of the Solomon farm, a lush, 59-acre terrain sold to the Omaha Home for Boys, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of wayward and orphaned boys. OHB was founded in 1920 by area leaders who wished to meet the growing need for a residential boys’ home in Omaha. The organization quickly outgrew two previous suburban addresses before settling at the farm – what eventually became known as Inspiration Hill. Handsome brick cottages were built to accommodate more boys, and, over time, a recreational facility, cafeteria and education center were erected on the property to fully serve the youth. In addition to being a nurturing home, OHB teaches the boys life lessons through experiential learning.
The idea to plant a community garden took root in January 2010, soon after Scott Hazelrigg of Omaha became president of the organization. A staff member suggested that a community garden would bring beneficial results to the home. Hazelrigg loved the idea, and plans for the garden were set in motion. In anticipation of spring, boys and staff members began tending to an herb and vegetable nursery housed at the learning center.
In April, soil was broken and tilled. Herbs, vegetables and flowers were planted, and, by July, Inspiration Garden was exploding with produce. Tomatoes shone like rubies in the summer sunshine, squash and zucchini sprouted heartily from their vines, and corn, onions, cucumbers and melons were proudly harvested by house parents and their boys.
With the arrival of Inspiration Garden came echoes of the past. In the earlier days of OHB, farming and gardening were second nature to many of the boys. In Elkhorn, Nebraska, a farming community west of Omaha, boys were given the opportunity to plant and harvest vegetables and even help with raising farm animals. Back at their residential campus, boys enjoyed tending to and harvesting apple and cherry trees. In many ways, Inspiration Garden will lead OHB back to its roots.
The boys who live at OHB have experienced many disappointments in their lives. Whether it was trouble at home, school or personally, the boys have known what it’s like to feel discouraged. But there’s something about being in a garden that nourishes the soul and brings a light into the hearts of the boys who live at OHB. They learn how to work together to accomplish something for the good of their community.
Phyllis Mendenhall, a house parent at one of OHB’s cottages, spent many summer days tending to her plot in the garden. Boys in her cottage participated in planting and harvesting various kinds of vegetables and berries.
“I think the youth who worked in the garden should be proud of their accomplishments,” Phyllis says. “And Inspiration Garden helps stretch the food budget at the home while giving boys an opportunity to work in the soil and watch the wonder of creation as it unfolds.”
Last year, the pilot year for the garden, the harvest was so bountiful that the boys were able to share produce with Omaha’s Royal Oaks Assisted Living for seniors. “It was great to give back to the community,” says one of the boys. “It felt good for the soul, and it was a lot of fun.”
It’s experiences like these that make Inspiration Garden so much more than a garden for growing vegetables – it grows new outlooks on life, new appreciation for nature, and new ways to have fun.
Bob Rugg, another house parent, says the boys who helped him work in the garden created their own catch phrase, “Hard work makes sweet corn.”
Hard work helps the boys realize how determination, patience and responsibility lead to success. Not just in gardening, but in meeting everyday goals and reaching their potential in life.
Next season, a new plot of land will be tilled to allow neighbors in the community to grow and harvest their own crops. The Omaha Home for Boys has returned to its roots – where the growth of a garden brings hope and inspiration to every boy who plants and harvests.
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