The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with the Oklahoma Gazette. In each issue, we highlight a person in our community who stands out for their leadership, kindness, and good deeds. Read it on the Oklahoma Gazette website here.
Jennifer Mabry of Giving Garden OKC
On a little patch of land tucked into the heart of Oklahoma City, you’ll find a small paradise. The air is fragrant as butterflies and hummingbirds flutter around vines of colorful flowers and the morning light and cool breeze of this particular day make this space seem magical. The truth is, it’s far more magical than it appears to the eye, and as Jennifer Mabry shows me around her garden, bustling with volunteers weeding and planting garlic, I’ll soon find out why.
Jennifer didn’t always garden. She spent more than a decade in the physically demanding, fast-paced employ of UPS before moving to a cubicle job that she hated.
“I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit,” Mabry said. “So at 41, I did something I’ve never done and just up and quit my job. My dad thought I was insane. I planned to do occupational therapy with kids as I just wanted to do something to help people. For a fun class, I wanted to sign up for floral design, but they required a horticulture class first. I had just quit my job, so, four days later, I was working in the greenhouse. And it just totally took me. I ended up here a year later to do my internship, and Lia Woods from Commonwealth Farms told me about a job with TLC to start growing on the Chesapeake property.”
In the seven years she oversaw the TLC Donation Garden at Chesapeake, Jennifer would go on to grow her own green thumb and help feed countless citizens along the way, producing as much as 5,200 pounds of donated food one year. When Chesapeake closed its campus earlier this year, she was suddenly forced to look for a new space to grow and continue her personal mission. Lia and CommonWealth Farms quickly stepped in to donate space at 3310 N. Olie Ave. in the Paseo as a temporary growing space. Last month, the Lazarus Community at Clark Methodist Memorial Church donated a new space at 5808 N. Macarthur Blvd. that will become the first official Giving Garden OKC. The space is currently undergoing soil restoration and compost pile construction and will open in the spring.
Jennifer’s long-term vision for The Giving Garden OKC is to see community gardens across our city to help eliminate food insecurity. Each garden is a big undertaking that requires a lot of money to set up as well as consistent volunteers to continue with the upkeep. The often unpredictable Oklahoma weather and other factors can often come into play, causing new problems.
“They say if you can grow in Oklahoma, you can grow anywhere because the weather here is so crazy. You don’t know if your first freeze is going to be in October or your last freeze is going to be in March or April,” she said. “So timing is everything, just kind of having the intuition on when to plant so that everything doesn’t die. One year we had a terrible infestation of grasshoppers, and this year the long rains flooded different areas, and we lost a lot of our tomatoes and squash, so there’s always something new to navigate, learn from and help teach.”
Providing fresh, nutritious food and teaching people how to grow it is Jenn’s top priority. And, in a time when food insecurity is at its highest and many people, including one in four Oklahoma children, don’t know when they’ll get their next meal, a vision like hers is crucial. Each of Jennifer’s gardens, with support from TLC Garden Centers, and other generous donors, provides food for the Homeless Alliance, the BritVille Food Pantry, and many more. In the future, she plans to expand the non-profit’s offerings with canning classes, growing education, and other demonstrations.
“A lot of people don’t have access to fresh produce or it’s really hard to come by. In many areas, the produce that’s available is almost expired, and as you know, if you don’t eat that salad within a couple of days, it’s just mushy and gross,” said Jennifer. “A lot of these people need nutritious food; they already go without health care and other basic needs. Fresh food provides vitamins and nutrients that can be especially important in lower-income and homeless communities.”
Growing with children has been especially rewarding for Jennifer, who has worked with several groups of kids including the Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts who come to volunteer, teaching them to garden, build monarch waystations, trellises, and more. She sees them learn to respect the food they grow and, in turn, actually like the fresh vegetables they previously turned their noses up at.
“A lot of kids just don’t know where their food comes from. I once had a little girl that had never seen a tomato.” Jennifer told me. “Here they can come, plant a seed and learn all about what it becomes after that and what it takes to grow it, and it changes their perspective. I’d like to help everyone learn to do that for themselves, whether it’s a front yard garden or backyard garden. It’s something everyone can share, and I think that’s very important.”
In the end, the gardens do more than just create food; they bring the community together. Groups of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds come together each week, finding common ground in working the earth.
“Back in the day, neighbors used to be neighbors; they used to help each other and have a sense of community,” said Mabry. “These educational classes and volunteer groups help get people involved and get to know their neighbors again while allowing them to feed the people who don’t have access to this at the same time. So it’s getting the community together to grow for their community. It’s just really rewarding. I love it. There’s something about working in the soil that is so calming and special for people; it’s good for the soul.”