It’s common in college towns to find tensions between students and long-time residents. In Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, two students have set out to improve so-called town-gown relations with a program that cultivates friendships through gardening.
Westhaven is a small neighborhood between the University of Virginia and downtown Charlottesville - a collection of small homes, many built in the early 20th century, and to newer, subsidized town homes for low income families.
“It’s public housing, so you only have so much space.”
That’s Shantell Bingham, who just got her masters degree in public health. She and her friend Artem Demchenko saw potential in the small yards of Westhaven. An architect specializing in sustainability, he was inspired by his homeland - Ukraine.
“Gardening is a part of our culture. We garden all the time. We had a huge garden around our house. We grew all kinds of things and harvested them at different times of the year.”
They applied for and won a $10,000 grant from the Dalai Lama’s Compassionate Action Project. One by one, they approached residents like Lisa Zampini, offering to design and build small gardens.
“My grandmother, when she passed, she left me a couple of plants, and I killed them, so I was a little skeptical about doing the garden, but doing it as a family, I was willing to give it a try, and we love it. I’m glad we did it.”
Zampini’s five kids helped plant seedlings, water and weed, while her 12-year-old took care of pest control.
“My daughter looked up a secret remedy for it. You take a spray bottle with some dish liquid and spray it all over the garden, and it helps keep the bugs away. Of course she didn’t tell me until after the bugs ate all our strawberries.”
This summer, she says, the kids are eating more fresh produce than usual. Her neighbor, Natasha Henson, enjoys cooking with fresh herbs and greens.
“I have like collards and kale, some mint, some thyme, some basil that I’ve been incorporating in my family dishes.”
You can’t beat the convenience, and the price is right.
“It’s free! You’re outside, enjoying the earth, the sunlight. It’s very comforting.”
As for the students, they’re gratified by new friendships. Again, Artem Demchenko.
“The biggest surprise was working with this community specifically, because as UVA students we’re almost taught that it’s dangerous to come into this community, or the people may be hard to work with. There may be cultural differences, but really when we came here we learned something entirely different.”
With the help of dozens of volunteers from UVA, they plan to continue the program next year, perhaps expanding to other parts of the city.