Unity Garden to open for 11th season

UNITY GARDEN PREPARATIONS — Justice Slappy, center, and Sister Mary O’Connor, right, stand with Slappy’s grandmother, Juanita, in the Unity Garden on Dock Street. The garden is under preparations for opening for its 11th season on June 6. Justice Slappy is hoping the garden becomes a green space initiative that spreads the spirit of common human experience across the city through more community gardens. -- Paul Giannamore

STEUBENVILLE — Amid the raised plant beds and the early-season weeds that need pulling and the growing display of neighborhood art stand Justice Slappy and Sister Mary O’Connor.

They’re working to prepare the Unity Garden on Dock Street for its 11th summer growing season, with an official kickoff day coming June 6, but it’s time for the garden to spread branches across the city, says Slappy.

O’Connor says she hopes season 11 sees the Unity Garden serve as an urban gardening recruiting station. She and Slappy hope people visit from 10 a.m. to noon and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on June 6 and that organizations and individuals decide to take the effort beyond the Unity Garden.

“We want to have green space. We need an army of urban farmers to adopt a plot and become the city of gardens,” she said.

Slappy spoke of the peace that he finds in his life that is spread through gardening. He and O’Connor say Slappy was a bit of a doubter about the Unity Garden concept when it started. But he’s an evangelist for what the garden can bring. Everyone, no matter their walk of life, race, age, religion or status, has to eat, after all, he said. And the common experience of working in the garden teaches lessons, about work, about working together, about life and opens hearts to truly listen to one another, he said.

Amid the raised flower beds made from wood from donated pallets and the donated wood chips for mulch is a tranquility.

“Every year, we see something special happen. It was amazing how everything started to grow, outside of just gardening. We began to grow as people and we’ve seen other people just wanting to help,” he said.

He said Unity is an acronym: Understanding the Needs in Today’s Youth, originating with his late uncle, Leroy Slappy III, Justice Slappy said.

“This was something we wanted to do to unify people,” he said, as his grandmother, Juanita, stopped by the garden. “Basically, his spirit was about bringing people together and it was the seed he planted in my heart.”

Slappy evangelizes about the effect of gardening. He pointed out a secluded spot in the garden that serves as a prayer circle, where people can visit and meditate and shut out the chaos of the world for a little bit and find the peaceful “green space in their hearts.” A blue tire in the middle of the circle represents a family of blue jays that live in the trees in the garden.

“It’s a new beginning, a new chapter. Come in here, take a deep breath and just absorb nature. You hear the birds chirping, you smell the air, you see the flowers, that’s what it’s all about. We pick up so much residue and poison and chaos on the outside,” he said.

He spoke of a lady of the streets who stopped by Wednesday morning and talked to him about helping in the garden, and O’Connor prayed with her. The lady, he said, became his teacher.

“She was put by God into the situation to explain what we’re doing. I said right there, we need to re-establish green spaces in our minds and our hearts,” he said. “How we offer her help and assistance and guidance is the green space.”

Slappy and O’Connor want the 11th year of the garden to be the year of the Peace Pact Green Initiative. Pact, he said, stands for “Partners Advancing Community Trust.” The idea is to find partners to help people facing trauma, which leads to violence that people can’t walk away from, Slappy said.

“We need to be about more than giving them advice. We need to find ways to help them create those green spaces in their hearts,” he said.

The initiative is about creating green spaces around the community, bringing the concept of the Unity Garden across the city and involving more than just Slappy and O’Connor as leaders.

“We need church organizations and nonprofits, schools. There’s a lot of work,” he said. And it’s not just about vegetables. There are possibilities for flower gardens.

The Unity Garden serves a “food desert,” a part of the city without a grocery store, and can feed people. The vegetables and fruit are free, but those who take it are asked to put some work, a little weeding or watering, into the garden.

“I know for a fact this will bring our community together, and it will help the key thing, which is listening,” he said. “When that lady came today, I didn’t sit there and say how I would take care of her and think how I’m a great person. It was her story and I became the child, listening to her struggle, to teach me. We have to listen to one another.

“The spaces in our hearts and minds are not green. There is death and destruction and hate and chaos. We need to replant seeds, plant love and compassion and these things that are needed,” he said.