Weeds billowed from raised beds, rust sheathed the metal benches, and the rickety fence had seen better days. Even the water spigot was broken.
The forlorn little garden had plenty of deficiencies, but as it turns out, what it really needed was Sunshine.
“I saw something good in it,” says Anielcia Myers, a.k.a. Sunshine, recalling her initial visit to the Uptown Community Garden upon becoming its manager. “It just needed love and care.”
Located at 4th Street and Sycamore, just north of the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the garden is getting some overdue attention this month. In a project aimed at providing a healthy food source for a neighborhood without many, the approximately 50-by-50-foot plot is being brought back to life so it can grow vegetables, herbs and berries this summer.
The initiative is drawing on support from ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, which has provided volunteers and tools, and helped to fix the spigot. It’s the latest of several efforts by ALSAC to assist the neighboring Uptown community north of Downtown Memphis.
On an unseasonably mild June morning, nearly a dozen volunteers from ALSAC went to work. They pushed pitchforks into the dirt to uproot weeds. They scrubbed and painted rusty benches. Not even a mound of angry fire ants — inadvertently disturbed during the weeding process — could deter them.
Helping oversee it all was a hard-working 25-year-old woman from Mississippi who, true to the nickname that she picked up in middle school and now goes by, radiates a special kind of light and energy.
New interest in an old calling
As a girl growing up in Holly Springs, Sunshine helped her father tend to a household garden much larger than the Uptown plot. “I hated doing it,” she recalls.
But gardening got in her blood, as she discovered years later. “As I’m growing up, I’m in school behind a desk writing up essays and stuff like that, I’m realizing I’m missing something.”
Sunshine started looking for work on naturally grown farms to match her vegan lifestyle. Although she had no formal training, she landed an internship with a Community Supported Agriculture operation in Ashland, Mississippi, that sells goods in farmers’ markets.
The experience on the farm left Sunshine yearning for more gardening work. She wanted to run a community garden, and Memphis, with 125 or so of them, seemed the perfect place to look.
"I really just want to get more people involved in gardening," she says.
But call after call went unanswered. It wasn’t until Sunshine got to the last number on her list that someone picked up. It was Tanja Mitchell, board member of the Uptown Community Association.
The Uptown group had established its community garden about a decade ago, with the labor, equipment and other support provided by the Memphis Rotary Club. The garden was built on land donated by nearby St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church.
The need for a garden was obvious. The 38105 Zip Code encompassing much of Uptown — and the St. Jude campus — is among the poorest in Memphis. The median household income in 2017 was just $18,065, less than half the figure for the whole city, Census figures show. About 16 percent of households have no access to a car.
There is only one full-service grocery store near Uptown, and “the produce section is limited,” Mitchell said.
“To be able to walk a just few blocks for fresh food, fresh tomatoes, anything you could think of — greens, peppers, anything to complete a meal — is a benefit to the neighborhood,” she added.
The garden operated well, with residents paying a small fee to tend plots, for the first few years, Mitchell said. Neighbors still tend to a few of the raised beds.
Over time, however, maintenance and upkeep issues developed, and following the departure of the previous manager, the plot deteriorated further.
Resurrecting the garden
Even with the naming of Sunshine as manager, a non-paying position, additional support was needed to improve and revitalize the garden.
Enter ALSAC, which, along with St. Jude, sits a block south of the garden on a 65-acre campus where some 6,000 people work. Mitchell recalls a conversation she had with Isabel Whitaker, ALSAC’s senior advisor for Corporate Social Responsibility, who had asked how the organization could be a better partner with the Uptown community.
“I said, ‘Well, for starters we need help in the garden.’”
Whitaker says ALSAC for years has conducted individual and organized service projects across Memphis and was eager to help with the garden. The work there was part of the first-ever ALSAC Week of Service, in which nearly 500 employees volunteered some 2,000 hours in community beautification, food parity and education equity efforts nationwide.
“I see these efforts increasing both in our backyard of Uptown and across the city as we continue to grow in support of our mission while also helping employees uplift the communities that we work in, live in and touch especially through the volunteer activities that mean so much to them,” Whitaker says.
One of the most critical needs addressed with ALSAC’s support was the repair of a frost-proof hydrant to allow for easy watering of the garden.
In addition to the help from ALSAC, Memphis City Beautiful provided compost and mulch.
Mitchell is thankful for the “perfect timing” of all the assistance.
“They’re helping us to bring our garden back to life,” she says.