A group of children in the Preston Hollow neighborhood, some barely big enough to carry a shovel, moved dirt in the backyard of the St. Rose Community Center for a new community garden.
Zoe Lane, the smallest of all the children, helped out the best she could by picking up small scoops of dirt with a trowel and moving them off to the side.
Nico Krebill, city farms director at the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, oversaw the project.
"Lets put the soil not just anywhere, but lets put it on the side near the grass," Krebill said.
"Can I put it right here?" one of the children said.
"You can put it right here, anywhere along this line," Krebill said.
He pointed to the border where the group would be setting up a cinder block perimeter for a community garden.
"We are going to pull this soil up and we are going to put this ground cloth down to keep the weeds out and then we are going to figure out the size of our garden," Krebill said.
The project is the first of its kind in St. Charles Parish and one of many activities the St. Rose Community Center provides for children in the community.
The center, which has been open for more than 20 years, is located at 608 Mockingbird Lane, only a few blocks from where three out of the last four murders in the parish have been committed.
Ferdneit Bailey, the center coordinator, said the garden project is being tied into a larger food awareness program.
"Some of the children don’t even know where their plants come from, like where their food comes from," she said. "Some of them are getting firsthand experience on it so they can see the process from beginning to end. And then with the produce or the products from the gardens, we are going to do basic cooking classes."
The center started off as a ranch style home, but was donated to the parish and renovated from a private residence into a community center. It now houses a computer lab and an activity room that includes a pool table and a long table that children use to do their homework, color and make arts and crafts. Meals are provided by local food banks and the parish’s summer food program, which is part of a free summer camp offered by the center.
Joan Diaz, director of community services for St. Charles Parish, said the center provides a vital function for the neighborhood’s children.
"They can get off the bus and come through this door between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. every day during the middle of the week when mom and dad are maybe at work and they are not alone in the street. They are less likely to be engaged in non-productive activities," she said. "That is the way to build a foundation from which they can grow."
Diaz said the center provides life enrichment, help with schoolwork and fun activities for children.
"The after-school activity center drop-in gets the young kids off the street," she said. "We do some prevention for at-risk populations in this community and give them structured activities and a vision for a better life and what they can aspire to be."
Last year alone the center served more than 1,300 people. In addition to offering after school activities and a summer program for children, the center provides life skills lessons for adults.
"A lot of the elderly in the community never used a computer before. So we give them some hands-on computer classes and at different points we’ve done different specialty programs," Diaz said. "We’ve done GED programs with the local dropouts and try to get them out of the street. We’ve also offered the opportunity for parenting classes for some of the young moms."
Bailey said helping the unemployed build a resume is one of the important functions the center serves.
"We show them how to do resume genie on the computer and they basically follow that wizard and write it in their own words," Bailey said. "Its just been great. One guy came back in and said ‘I got a job Miss Ferdneit!’ and he was so excited and I was excited too."
Jurdy Lee has worked at the center for the past seven years and has lived just down the street for the past 40 years. She said her deep connection to the community helps in her work with the center and its goal of providing other options for children.
"It’s very, very important because I know so many people out here and I can knock on doors and ask parents about their kids and letting their kids come," Lee said. "And if they do misbehave, I get on the phone or either go to their house and let them know about it."
Bailey said it is her hope to help as many children as possible in the community.
"We want to enrich the lives of the children in the community, just so they can have a safe place to play - a safe place to go study and do research. A safe haven," she said. "It’s very important because without the center, being able to come over here, they might just be running around on the street."