Franciscan Center helps gardens grow in Allendale

ALLENDALE — Pomegranates and blueberries might be key ingredients to a brighter future for residents of the Dale Apartments in this small town.

Volunteers Kathryn Schlau decker, with the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island, Esther Manuel and Cornelius Hamilton were undeterred by the cold as they measured out garden plots on a wide expanse of land behind the complex.

The three hope to plant the fruits in the spring as part of this year’s Market Garden project. The gardens, along with other programs, comprise the Center of Hope’s collaborative outreach sponsored by the Franciscan Center, which expanded into Allendale in 2006.

Franciscan Sisters Sheila Byrne and Stella Breen have run the Franciscan Center for more than 20 years and it is well known in Beaufort County for its outreach to immigrants and the needy.

The center received a grant from the Sisters of Charity of South Carolina that allowed them to extend their services to other high-poverty areas in the state. They reached out to Allendale County.

After working with community organizations and talking to area residents, the sisters and other volunteers decided to start the Market Garden program in 2007 with money from a second Sisters of Charity grant.

They now  have five plots. The newest, in the Sugar Hill-Flat Street community, was dedicated in October.

Low-income individuals, families and communities work together to plant, tend and harvest the beds. They keep some of the produce and sell a portion to generate income.

Participants have also helped support the Allendale Farmer’s Market by selling fruits and vegetables there.

Manuel, who works with the local organization Children Youth and Families at Risk, said the garden at the Dale Apartments introduces residents to skills that were commonly practiced in rural areas like theirs only a few decades ago.

“We want to improve the quality of life of residents here by increasing the awareness of home gardening,” Manuel said. “Gardening is a lost art, and by teaching them about it we can increase their fresh food supply and teach them a new skill.”

Hamilton, who also works with families at risk and South Carolina State University’s extension program,  said they hope to help residents develop businesses centered on the produce.

He hopes local eateries will be interested in buying the pomegranates and blueberries. The two fruits have grown increasingly popular in recent years because they contain large amounts of beneficial antioxidants. Volunteers are also studying ways to grow exotic herbs, fruits and mushrooms to sell to restaurants and high-end food stores.

Hamilton said soil samples indicated the land at the Dale Apartments would be suitable for growing this type of food.

The market gardens also grow seasonal vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, beans and herbs in the summer, and currently support winter crops like collard greens and cabbage. The plot at Dale Apartments also has onions, garlic, African peppers and herbs.

“The soil here is conducive to a lot of different produce,” Hamilton said. “Many people don’t realize that. The pomegranates and blueberries are really the pilot for what we hope to do here in the future.”

Schlaudecker and her husband started volunteering at the Franciscan Center when they moved to Beaufort in 2002. She helped the sisters write the grant application in 2006. Now, she is one of the main coordinators of the outreach programs there.

The center received a third grant from the Sisters of Charity in June, and plans for 2009 include expansion of the market garden sites, planting more exotic crops and collaborating  with the extension services at S.C. State and Clemson universities to further develop the Allendale Farmers’ Market. Volunteers also want to establish an activity center for youth and senior citizens.

“Allendale has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved in,” Schlaudecker said. “I love going there and working with the people who are trying so hard to build that town up. The people are so responsive and welcoming. It’s a marvelous experience.”