Allison Morales, 10, Maggie Peñate-Lopez, 12, Anael Carrillo, 12, and Anahi Barrios, 11, all attend different schools in DeKalb and Sycamore.
Nevertheless, the girls have become close friends through their involvement in Mano a Mano (Hand in Hand) Latino 4-H Club of DeKalb County.
The club has about 30 members ages 5 to 18 and is the only Latino 4-H club in the area.
“We wouldn’t know each other outside of the club, we go to different schools, we live in different towns and we’re different ages,” Barrios said.
“What I love about the club is that we can be ourselves, be with others that talk and understand Spanish and make new friends,” Peñate-Lopez said. “We always work together. Even though we do different parts, we work together to complete projects.”
On May 23, 4-H club members and their families planted a variety of tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage and kale at Sycamore Public Library’s More than Books Community Garden. The plants, grown from seeds, were donated by Opportunity House.
Araceli King-Lopez, the club’s coordinator, said that taking care of the community garden combines the 4-H’s pledge and motto.
“Our pledge says, ‘Use my hands for a larger service,’ and our motto is ‘Learn by doing,' and taking care of the garden does both,” King-Lopez said. “As a community service club, we try to find projects that let us work in and around the community. Many of the group’s families are low-income or live in apartments so they can’t garden at home.”
Maria Franco of DeKalb, whose two children, Brianna Hernandez, 9, and Jayden Hernandez, 7, are members of the 4-H club, said that helping with the garden is important because they do not have a garden at home.
“I love that the entire family can get involved. I’m planting, my husband is raking and the kids are digging holes and watering,” Franco said. “It’s fun to work together as a family, the kids make friends, the kids become leaders and we’re helping the community.”
At the end of the growing season, the club will use some of the garden’s produce to make salsa together. However, most of the harvest will be donated to a local food pantry.
“This project will teach the children a lot of things, like science, math and measurements,” King-Lopez said. “We will also talk about traditional Mexican recipes that use those vegetables, like tamales. At the end of the season, we’ll use Mason jars and learn how to can salsa. It’s very important to teach them about our culture, their heritage. It also gives them a sense of purpose; it gives them the ability to provide for someone else.”
Jesse Butz, director of the Sycamore Public Library, described the garden as “a true community effort.”
The garden was created in 2014 from an empty lot next to the library’s historic Carnegie section, across from the DeKalb County Courthouse. To create the garden, Burke's Hauling Inc. in Sycamore donated soil, Alexander Lumber Co. in Cortland donated lumber, Doty & Sons Concrete Products in Sycamore donated concrete blocks, DeKalb County Community Gardens donated seeds, Walmart and International Paper Foundation gave money that helped purchase fencing and a bench and Blain’s Farm and Fleet gave a discount toward the purchase of a rain barrel system.
The garden also is handicapped accessible, allowing people in wheelchairs to garden from off-the-ground, raised garden beds.
Through the years, volunteer library staff and community groups from Opportunity House, Cub and Girl Scout troops and students from NIU Cares Day helped take care of the garden.
Last spring, Butz met King-Lopez at a community event and learned about the Mano a Mano Latino 4-H Club. Over the summer, the club helped tend, weed and water the garden. After they helped grow hundreds of pounds of produce to be donated to people in need, Butz asked the group to take care of the garden as their own project.
Now the 4-H Club visits and tends the garden multiple times a week.
“With all of the businesses and organizations that helped make it possible, this garden represents the community coming together,” Butz said. “The children will learn new skills and have a lifelong love of growing. The 4-H club is about two languages, two cultures coming together. The club and the garden are all about bringing the community together, working together.”
For information or to donate to or volunteer with the More than Books Community Garden, call the Sycamore Public Library at 815-895-2500.