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During the growing season, a group of women plant, tend and harvest a set of garden plots in St. Louis Park.

Christa Golden is one of them.

But for Golden, the gardens have become more than a summer pastime. They are a place of calmness, a place where she can reflect on just how much her life has changed from two years ago, when she had no place to live and was struggling with addiction.

Run by Perspectives, Inc., a human services agency working with women emerging from homelessness, the gardens are part of a mission to promote a healthy lifestyle. As it turns out, they have provided sustenance in more ways than one.

"It's had a major impact in my life," Golden said. "Before this, I wasn't into gardening. I've wanted to eat healthier. I've learned a lot and this will be good for me and my kids. My daughter is now starting to ask for things like a sprinkle of parsley on things she eats."

Families in the program come from Hennepin County emergency shelters. Through Perspectives, they are provided apartments in a two-generation model that aims to move mothers and their children toward stability.

The gardening arm of Perspectives started about eight years ago in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteer program and Untiedt's vegetable farm.

Master gardeners talk with the women to find out what they and their children like to eat. The budding green thumbs then receive seedlings and have mentors who help them maintain and harvest their produce.

To further enjoy nature's bounty, Perspectives registered dietician Kay Guidarelli and health and wellness case manager Erin Gresham provide recipe ideas and host cooking nights.

One week might be a how-to on making sea salt basil to sprinkle on top of fresh zucchini, cucumbers or tomatoes. Other weeks, the women might make salsa, dried herbs and pesto. Non-food items are created, as well, such as herbs and flowers made into lotions and sage sticks.

"When we started the program it was mostly just a community garden. We found value for women to have their own private plots," Guidarelli said. "I'm there to see what the interest is for the moms. They will tell you things like their goal is to get their kids to eat more vegetables. We talk about what they want to do with their produce when it's ready."

There are opportunities for kids to get involved, too. Through the Minnesota State Horticultural Society's Garden-in-a-Box program, youngsters water, weed and maintain six garden boxes in the playground. The kids also help Perspectives' Cargill Kids Cafe Program Manager and Instructor Donyelle"Donnie" Williams prep the fruits and vegetables that are made into meals for them.

"We're trying to make this into a multigenerational program, from 2-year-olds all the way up to moms," said Lisa Day, Perspectives director of giving and engagement, who nominated the program for the Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens contest.

The gardens have also become a place to heal. Amid a time of social justice reckoning, Perspectives community members dedicated a garden to George Floyd and invited members of the St. Louis Park Police Department to participate in the event.

Forging friendships

Recovery specialist Yolanda Farrisis a key player in the gardening program.

Farris, who fought drug and alcohol addiction, arrived at Perspectives in 2013 and graduated in 2016. As a staff member, she's passionate about providing emotional support for residents, who are required to stay sober and are encouraged to lead a healthier lifestyle and take advantage of educational opportunities to find work and establish financial security.

"We're all in recovery and we all need one another," Farris said. "This gardening program has been a huge part of my life. You come out here and find serenity. It's just so peaceful."

For Jennifer Larson, gardening and cooking from the bounty has now become a tradition for her family. They snack on cherry tomatoes while picking peppers, eggplants, kale and green beans, then head to their apartment and make a stir-fry.

"I definitely eat more nutritiously with our garden around. I like to cook with my kids so I try to teach them how to cook," Larson said. "It brings me peace of mind to be in the garden. I get to reflect, have gratitude."

Larson said she will forever be thankful for the Perspectives program.

"Perspectives changed my life. I was battling addiction and I moved from inpatient to outpatient treatment. When I was done I had a place to go with all the essentials provided," she said. Before this, "I had lost my kids and this gave me the opportunity to get grounded and to get them back and move forward with my life. And here we are making zucchini bread together tonight."

That sense of fellowship is one of the less tangible but essential benefits of the gardens.

"I had a lot of animosity at first with people who were just trying to help," said Golden of when she started at Perspectives.

As she got more involved in gardening, she started looking forward to the regular gatherings in the gardens.

Golden said she has become a devout Christian, now has her children with her and is working on her marriage and starting a small business.

"Hopefully I'll buy a house when I leave here," Golden said, "with a garden."