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Giving garden sign in Illinois
Catherine and her sister feeding their duck outside the garden
Rows of crops at the giving garden
the giving garden in illinois

St. Jude family starts community garden to share the bounty


Pay-what-you-will organic garden in Illinois nourishes the community and raises funds for St. Jude.


It’s the first week of March, there’s a dusting of snow, and the temperatures have dipped below zero here in central Illinois, but the work of Catherine’s community garden for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital never stops, and sometimes it literally spills into her living room.

“Right now, if you came to my house, you’d see light fixtures, seedlings and containers full of dirt,” said Catherine.

The St. Jude Giving Garden has always relied on its volunteers, and this year for the first time, children from the local schools are being enlisted to grow the plants from heirloom seeds. This will be a great help because Catherine won’t have to do the seed growing by herself, but for now, it doesn’t really solve the problem of where to sit down in her family living room.

st. jude giving garden

“I just ordered more planting containers and trays so that I could take them into schools, so now I have something like 1,000 trays, 1,500 pots, and they’re just stacked everywhere,” laughs Catherine. “I’m like, ‘OK, it’s planting season again.’”

But Catherine would do anything to help this community, which provided her family with so much support when her daughter Grace was sick. And she would do anything to help St. Jude, the place that saved Grace’s life.

St. Jude patient Grace wit cucumbers

St. Jude patient Grace

Cancer hurts, food heals

It started in 2011 with strange red spots on Grace’s face where her swim goggles had been. Then came a fever and a lump under her arm that seemed to double in size overnight. Grace, then 7, was found to have acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Worse, a genetic mutation made her cancer resistant to treatment.

At St. Jude, Grace underwent a bone marrow transplant with her sister as her transplant donor. Many days during her recovery, the second grader felt too sick to eat. To complicate matters, Grace had serious food allergies.

“She was allergic to eggs, to dairy, to peanuts, to tree nuts, to dyes. So many things. So I had to be careful of what she would eat,” said Catherine.

Grace loved sweet potatoes and acorn squash. So St. Jude made sure the little girl had that.

“I’ve never seen a cafeteria that has such healthy choices, and they catered to whatever Grace wanted to eat that day. If they didn’t have it, they’d either offer to go get it, or let us go get it, and they’d cook it up for us,” remembered Catherine. “That’s just amazing because when kids are going through that kind of thing, if you can get them to eat anything, it’s just a miracle. The only thing you ever had to worry about at St. Jude was if your child was going to make it or not. Everything else, they take care of for you.”

Today, Grace, who is in ninth grade, loves swimming, drawing, writing stories and public speaking. When she grows up, she says she wants to be a doctor at St. Jude.

Sometimes when Catherine sees Grace working alongside her sisters in the St. Jude Giving Garden, she feels overwhelmed with emotion.


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A garden shaped like hope

The garden grew from a question Catherine asked herself during the long months of Grace’s recovery from her bone marrow transplant at St. Jude, “What could I do with an acre of land?” Already looking forward to life back home in Illinois, Catherine wanted to do something to benefit the community and St. Jude. She believed beauty could grow from the hard soil of cancer and its treatment. “I thought, ‘Gardening is something I could do.’”

So she and Grace and her other three daughters began to brainstorm and plan. Once Grace got better and her new immune system took hold, they decided they would grow an heirloom garden on some property they owned. Guests could come to the garden, pick what they wanted, and pay what they could as a donation to St. Jude. Thoughts of springtime and growth and renewal took root.

Giving garden sign in Illinois
Canned vegetables for sale at the St. Jude Giving Garden
Signage at the St. Jude Giving Garden
St. Jude patient Grace with her new duck

“The garden gave us an opportunity to do something for our community by providing organic produce that anyone could afford, no matter their income level,” said Catherine. The St. Jude Giving Garden has been up and running for the past four years.

“It’s a whole family affair all season long, so the girls are learning tons about gardening and canning and shoveling, and all of that,” said Catherine. “One of the perks of doing this was that it was something our family could do together.”

Each year, the family is able to donate approximately $2,500 from the garden, with proceeds expected to go up once everything they’ve planted has matured. “Some of the fruit trees and the grape vines aren’t producing fruit yet. The pear trees, plum trees, peach trees, apple trees. Nothing yet, but someday. It takes time. We also have raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, but none of those are producing anything – yet,” said Catherine.

Signage from the St. Jude Giving Garden

This year, they’re adding a canning garden so nothing will go to waste, and they can raise extra money through an end-of-year canning sale. Back when Grace was still so sick, Catherine and her daughters decided exactly how they wanted their garden to look someday. The garden is on a slight slope by the street, so when people pass by, they can clearly make out its special design.

The family planted the beds in a certain way so that, when viewed from a distance, the garden looks like the silhouette of a child with its head bowed and hands cupped — the shape of the St. Jude logo.


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