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Former Convicts Help Construct Community Garden for Crown Heights Kids

By Sonja Sharp | July 18, 2013 1:02pm

CROWN HEIGHTS — It's a real growth opportunity. 

Former inmates and at-risk youth from the Horticultural Society of New York's GreenTeam joined forces with staff and volunteers from Settlement Housing Fund and the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust Wednesday to raise a community garden for the preschoolers at St. Johns Place Family Center and their neighbors in Crown Heights. 

"I like doing it — it keeps me out of trouble," said GreenTeam member Luis Melendez, 55, who was released on parole last spring after serving time for burglary. "I like growing plants from seedlings."

When it's completed, the garden at 1640 St. Johns Place will have more than a dozen eight foot by four foot seed beds for flowers and food. By the fall, it should already be blooming. 

"We're building a vegetable and flower garden so children and families can come in here and learn about healthy eating," said Louis Rodriguez, St. Johns' executive director. "We're taking these vacant lots and building them into community assets." 

The children's portion of the garden will serve more than 30 preschoolers. The center hopes to bring in a chef to demonstrate how parents can cook healthy meals from what's grown there. 

"It gives the community an opportunity to have fresh fruits and vegetables," said Demetrice Mills, board president of the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, which owns the lot. "There's a big difference in the taste — you can taste the difference between produce that's grown in a garden and what you can buy at a supermarket." 

But for many members of the GreenTeam, the garden on St. Johns offers another kind of opportunity. Melendez made a lot more money before he started building community gardens like the one taking shape in Crown Heights — but that job cost him eight and a half years behind bars. 

"I'm working for minimum wage — it doesn't help much, but it's better than nothing," Melendez said. "I could be doing what I used to be doing and make a lot of money out of it, but eventually I'd be going back to jail. I'd rather be doing this."