Local man has a heart to feed others through community gardens

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Robert Harris tends to weeds July 7, 2009, in one of the flower beds at Red Star Community Garden in Cape Girardeau. “I’m always pulling something,” Harris said. “That’s just what I do.” (Southeast Missourian file)

Robert Harris is an unpaid servant of the city of Cape Girardeau. He works tirelessly to help maintain the community gardens at various locations in the city. His work began with a dream -- a dream of building a network of gardens to feed those in need, and in turn would reach many youths and organizations who would help make the dream come true.

Robert's work began 12 years ago with one garden on North Main Street. Robert and his mother were the sole workers. Now there are five gardens within the network.

The Cape Girardeau County Juvenile Center has a garden and a greenhouse, which is used to raise bedding plants for all the gardens. The juvenile center sends youths to work in all the gardens.

The Missouri Division of Youth Services' Echo program also has a garden. Its youths also help with the gardens.

Catholic Charities Food Pantry has a garden to supplement its food program.

The Deer Creek Christian Academy has a children's garden and a greenhouse. They raise some bedding plants for the gardens.

For a long time, Robert and his mother had talked about starting a container garden project but had no supplies or money. Their goal was to show that food could be grown in a small space.

Robert shared this idea with a Christian group of men at Gordonville of which he is a part. They are called the "tool shed group" and are at the Lorberg farm in Gordonville.

The members began to help with supplies and straw. Then Mr. Charles Schabbing heard about the idea of a container garden project and donated 20 plastic half-barrels. This was in 2011.

Robert and his mother wondered where they would get the growing medium and other supplies for the containers. They were just about to the point of saying "maybe next year," when a Master Gardener friend shared with me.

I contacted the Modern Woodmen fraternal department, which released $500 to get the container garden under the Good Neighbor program. The Harrises and I went to a local garden shop. We were able, in two trips, to purchase enough Metromix, top soil, fertilizer, tomato and pepper plants to fill all 20 barrels. They arranged to meet the following Wednesday at the Echo facility with other Modern Woodmen members to begin preparing the soil in the barrels and then planting.

Cape Girardeau County master gardeners and the Cape Girardeau Parks and Recreation Department as well as volunteer groups, such as St. Andrew Lutheran Church, also helped and volunteered their time. This is how I came to know Robert, amidst the project of the barrels.

It's not hard to see why Robert has been so successful. Robert began by growing plants in his backyard. As the years passed and the first garden became a reality, Robert realized that he needed help.

This quiet, unassuming man began to see that he could not only grow food for others' benefit, but he could also touch the lives of troubled, down-and-out youths. He wanted to see them thrive and be productive in the process.

It did not take long for the youths to see that Robert was a man of honor and integrity, caring about each one of them and what was happening in their lives.

In that garden every person has had a common goal, to grow the plants to feed people. They work well together. There is no class distinction, just a group of brothers working with a soft-spoken man who uses the resources he has been given and achieves against all odds.

What is it like when the youths come to work? Seeing these youths catch his dream gives Robert great joy. Not only are the youths learning what it really takes to grow food from seed to the food itself, but they also jump right in with hoes, rakes, shovels or however they see the need. And the community is getting the food.

What has Robert achieved with his successful efforts? Not silver or gold, not a prestigious office or house. Because, you see, youths are not the only people who are being touched by Robert. He has numerous friends who recognize that this man truly reflects a heart filled with love for his fellow man. They realize that Robert would give you the shirt off his back.

He gives unselfishly. There is no sham and pretense in this man, just a tenderhearted person who gives his all to help others. And Robert has friends who, during this sixth round with cancer, are doing anything they can do to help him keep going, because Robert can't even lift a gallon jug.

As for Robert, he isn't depressed over his lot in life, despite his struggling; he is simply overjoyed that he is seeing his dream come to fruition. And all the people who come to know Robert, as he goes and works in all five gardens, are learning to love and live as he is teaching them. Rarely do any of us meet such a man who by the world's standards has nothing but yet has it all.

Robert has a new dream now. He wants the dream of the gardens and the people working in partnership to continue to live when he passes on. It is when he sees the youths working in the gardens that he believes it will happen.

Robert's faith in God, his faithfulness to his family, and the faith he has in the youths give him that inner joy that is a witness of his heart.

What love, what man, what a good Samaritan who touches lives with a heart filled with love for his fellow men. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Rebecca Volkerding is the activities coordinator for Modern Woodmen of America Chapter 9834.

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