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The greening of South Toledo: Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center plants community gardens to provide food for the hungry


By Alan Abrams, La Prensa Senior Correspondent


There’s a new look in South Toledo as urban gardens have begun to flourish in the South Broadway Street/Western Avenue area.


What’s the story behind the greenery? La Prensa asked Joe Balderas, the executive director of the Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center and longtime community activist.

Director Joe Balderas with students Robert Zepeda (UT), Tomás Moctezuma (Waite HS), and Doug Prather (Owens), at the garden area of the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center.


“We pioneered the concept of urban gardens five or six years ago,” explained Balderas. “We had the first one in the area, but now there are five new sites, all within walking distance of our center. 


“Right now, we’re partnering with the Western Avenue Family Center, in the old Western Avenue Baptist Church, which itself is tied in with the Cherry Street Mission.”


Balderas said the Quintero Center’s involvement began when “[U.S.] Rep. Marcy Kaptur invited all the community organizations to a meeting for the Community Foundation because we need to start creating community gardens and help produce food for the poor.


“Other organizations also came there to ask her for help.  We made a proposal and received a $3,500 grant to help establish gardens in the neighborhood. So now, in addition to our original garden, we have a habitat garden, a fruit orchard at a private residence,  a vegetable garden on Viva South’s land, a pumpkin and watermelon patch and strawberry fields,” said Balderas.


 “At the fruit orchard, we planted 40 raspberry bushes and we’re putting blueberry bushes in this week. We have the money to purchase eight fruit trees and plant them in the fall.

And at the Viva South property, which is across from Westfield School. We have a big vegetable garden with sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, wax beans, zucchini, lettuce, and a variety of peppers. We even had to build a fence around it to keep rabbits out,” added Balderas.


“Over at the Western Avenue Family Center, we have a pumpkin and watermelon patch surrounding the church building. There’s also a very small children’s garden which is taken care of by the kids at the family center.


“A few, maybe ten yards away, behind an abandoned house that the church owns, is a back yard strawberry field. We planted 100 strawberry plants and now there are twelve 4’ by 8’ raised beds. The plants are throwing off new shoots and we’ll have 200 or more next year and 300 to 400 plants by the following year. Within three years, we will have a huge strawberry area because one plant produces up to five more,” promised Balderas.


“We had a lot of involvement because many community residents volunteered, especially people from the Western Avenue Family Center. It has been a very youth-oriented project. We’ve involved kids who are 8-9 years old in decorating the pieces of the two- foot fence amid the raised beds.


“We are continually adding art into our gardens. There are many beautiful and colorful designs on the fences that have been painted by young people including those at the Sofia Quintero Center. By creating the fenced art around the strawberries, we are bringing color to the gardens because otherwise the only color you see there is green,” said Balderas.


“We partnered with the Andersons, and for the past two weeks we’ve been developing the Habitat Garden just for nature, and not as a future source of food. All of the plants are Ohio natives or American native plants. There are no hybrids. We want to attract, butterflies, birds, and bees for pollination. We call it our Butterfly Gardens.


“The purpose of the other gardens is certainly to distribute the produce to people of need and to the hungry. I send the produce from my garden at the Sofia Quintero Center to the Aurora González Family Resource Center for their food program,” said Balderas.


“During the summer, we collaborate with the YMCA Summer food program. From Monday through Friday between 11 A.M. and 1 P.M., any youth 18 and under gets a free lunch. We also partner with the Toledo Museum of Art, and they come out on Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 P.M. until 2 P.M. during lunch hour for the summer art program. Because the kids are already here, we get a bigger crowd for the lunch program on those days when it is combined with the art program,” explained Balderas.


Other projects at the Center


But that’s not all that’s new at the Sofia Quintero Center. “We also have a bike restoration program,” said Balderas.  “We collected bikes from the police department, bikes that were stolen or lost. We took about 45 to 50 bikes and brought them here to the Sofia Quintero Center.


“We invited kids 10 and up to come in on a Saturday. They could pick a bike they liked and adults were on hand to show them how to fix a bike—they all needed repair to things like the brakes, tires or the seat.


“That way, kids learn how to do maintenance. Then we gave them a helmet and a bike lock. After they worked on the bike, we gave it to them. We gave away 12 this May, the others were scrapped for parts. Next time, we’re going to do it as a winter project in January or February.”


“We’ve also been busy with the Juvenile Court boat program. This will be the fifth boat we’ve built at the Sofia Quintero Center, but it is our first sailboat. We have always done rowboats, skiffs or canoes.


“We build the boat from scratch using marine grade plywood. We spend about six weeks on it. So far, we have the shell done and we are working on the mast. It technically isn’t a project of the Sofia Quintero Center, but we give them space, the facility and tools,’ said Balderas.


Pointing to the recent Viva South Festival, Balderas explained “We were the headquarters for the event, and we are now talking about putting it totally under our umbrella because we are a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization.”


Balderas is also looking ahead to the future on several additional fronts. He said the Sofia Quintero Center partnered with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to produce the first Cinco de Mayo celebration on Glanzman Road, and because it was such a success, they will continue the program next year.


He is already planning for the Day of Dead annual fundraiser on Saturday, October 31, 2009, as well as for the next Entre Amigos fundraiser in February 2010 with the YMCA and Mi Hacienda restaurant. That event features an all-you-can-eat Mexican dinner for $15, with the profits split between all of the parties, says Balderas.





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