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Healthy Sumter officially opens community garden with ribbon-cutting ceremony

AMERICUS – On Saturday morning, October 31, a little over 50 people, including county and city officials, gathered at Brookdale Park in Americus for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the Healthy Sumter Community Garden.

According to Marcus Johnson, Director of Community Relations and Patient Experience at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (PSMC), Healthy Sumter is the collaboration of PSMC and a number of local organizations, including One Sumter, the City of Americus, the Sumter County Board of Commissioners and Flint River Fresh, a 501C3 organization based in Albany that is dedicated to making fresh, locally-grown produce accessible and affordable for people throughout the Flint River Region in Southwest Georgia.

One of the primary goals of Healthy Sumter is to encourage healthy eating and to eliminate “food deserts (scarcity of healthy food). It is believed that this new garden will help achieve that goal by increasing access to fresh, healthy food in underserved areas and will help to prevent illness.

“I’m very happy to be a part of the Healthy Sumter initiative,” Johnson told the crowd assembled. “This is something that we’ve talked about for a long time and it’s so good to see the actual thoughts come to fruition.”

This is where the community garden at Brookdale Park will be grown. Healthy Sumter, a campaign to improve the overall health and wellness of Sumter County, is spearheading an effort to grow fruits and vegetables in this garden so that people in Sumter County will have access to healthy foods.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Johnson went on to thank all of those involved in making the opening of this garden a reality. “We didn’t want it to just be Phoebe Sumter, we want it to be the whole community, so all of the things that we do are community-based and we’re really proud about that,” said Johnson.

Rev. Larry Sims, Pastor of the Union Taberancle Baptist Church, delivered the opening invocation to the ceremony, but also stated that this day was a day that he never thought he would see. “As a little boy, this was nothing but a field with a crematory and Mr. Hatcher’s Butcher Shop,” said Sims. He went on to say that when he was a young boy, there were no houses in the area and that he and his friends would go through the area on their way to a creek to go swimming. “To stand here today and to see what’s taking place is truly a blessing for me to be here,” said Sims.

Americus City Council Member Nelson Brown, who served as the Mayor Pro Tem on that day, began his remarks by saying that it is a blessing from God to be able to serve people. “Everything that you see here is about service, about service to mankind,” said Brown. “I want to thank all the people that participated in making this happen thus far.” Brown went on to say that Brookdale Park has come a long way from what it was and that when the community garden came into play, it enhanced what they were trying to do with the park all along.

Marcus Johnson, Director of Community Relations and Patient Experience at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, spoke to a group of a little more than 50 people who were gathered at Brookdale Park to witness the ribbon cutting and opening of the Healthy Sumter Community Garden.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Brown went on to say that back in 1990, some high school students wanted to do something in the community and came out and cleaned up the park, but didn’t have a clear vision for what the park would become on October 31, 2020. “This is going to be a bow tie, a bow tie Brookdale Park,” said Brown. “This is a great piece and I’m going to tell you why I say “bow tie”. Community garden, serving the people, we’re going to have a walking trail here. It’s a long ways to go, but if I got anything to do with it, we’re going to succeed and put a walking trail here.” Brown went on to reiterate that people who visit Brookdale Park can have access to healthy eating through the garden and can have physical exercise through use of the walking trail that will be installed there. “That’s what the vision is: having a walking trail for all the people to come out and really recognize this park for what it is,” continued Brown.

This is the map and layout of the Healthy Sumter Community Garden at Brookdale Park.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Brown went on to say that Santee Bridges, a member of the neighborhood in which Brookdale Park is located, came to Brown and told him that something needs to be done about the park, which is one of the oldest parks in Americus. Brown thanked Bridges for his contribution to the improvements of the park and the inception of the food garden. He also thanked the AKA Sorority for its involvement in contributing to the inception of the garden and the improvements to the park as well. “AKA has been involved with us for a long time,” said Brown. “A lot of effort, hard work, bringing teenagers out, participating with the work. I have to acknowledge you all because we appreciate you.”

Brown went on to thank the City of Americus, the Sumter County Correctional Institute, the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department (SCPRD), PSMC, Williams Road Church and others for all of their contributions as well. “This is teamwork. These are things that God wants us to do,” said Brown.   Brown went on to say that all people throughout Sumter County are invited to come out and utilize the park and that the community garden is putting Brookdale Park on the map, where it should have been a long time ago. He concluded his speech by saying that the citizens of Sumter County need to come out and make the effort to contribute to making the garden and the park what it needs to be.

Americus Mayor Barry Blount speaks to the crowd gathered at Brookdale Park for the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the Healthy Sumter Community Garden.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Fernando Jackson, Executive Director of Flint River Fresh, stated that he is thankful that PSMC reached out to his organization to be a partner in this endeavor to make fresh food available for all. “It’s good to see everybody out here. It’s good to see people wanting to be seen, but I’m here to recruit workers,” said Jackson. “I’m here to say that this garden itself will not grow without hands to plant the seeds.”

Jackson went on to say that when Flint River Fresh does projects such as this, they call these gardens “faith gardens”. “Faith stands for food available in the home. That’s F.A.I.T.H,” said Jackson. “Being that I am a native of Sumter County, graduated from Americus High School Class of 1994, it’s important that we do the work, but it’s also important that we do it for our family.”

Jackson continued his speech by saying that he is thankful that his family was there to witness the momentous day and that when he was a volunteer at Koinonia Farm, Kirk Lyman-Barner came up with a project called “Faith in Action”, where he and other volunteers worked with the Fuller Center for Housing and repaired homes. “When I’m thinking about this project, I think about the legacy of Miller Fuller and how he talked about people putting in sweat equity to change their community,” said Jackson. “This is our version of sweat equity.”

Fernando Jackson, Executive Director of Flint River Fresh, speaks to the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the Healthy Sumter Community Garden at Brookdale Park.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Jackson went on to say that if the community collectively will lend a hand, plant the seeds, help with the harvest and help with the distribution, the culture of the community can be changed. “I’m emphasizing collectively because every day that I’ve come out here, the first thing people say is that this garden will not last,” said Jackson. “They say that the community will destroy it. They say that the community will tare it apart,” said Jackson. “But if I see this audience of believes in front of me all willing to say that ‘I will stop by this garden’ for five minutes, 10 minutes a day, maybe an hour or two on a Friday or Saturday, it will show those in this community what is possible.”

Jackson concluded by challenging those who attended the ceremony to take time out of their busy schedules to come out and volunteer a few hours a week on a Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to work in the garden.

Ivy Oliver, Executive Director of One Sumter, stated that Healthy Sumter is one of the first products that has come to fruition with her organization. “We know that it takes many hands to make something like this happen, so we want to thank you all in your investment in that,” said Oliver. “Our organization was very excited to partner with the Healthy Sumter initiative when we first heard about it.” Oliver went on to say that the investment into the park and the garden will eventually create and provide a healthier food source for the community and, in time, a healthier work force and an enhanced quality of like. “We’re looking forward to a lot of these parks popping up through all of Sumter County and filling in those food deserts,” said Oliver. “We want to thank Phoebe Sumter for their investment, the City of Americus and Flint River Fresh to make this happen and we are excited and want more to come from this initiative so thank you all so much.”

The Healthy Sumter Community Garden at Brookdale Park is being constructed. This garden is expected to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the people of Sumter County and is the creation of Healthy Sumter, a collaboration of Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, One Sumter and other local organizations dedicated to improve the overall health, well ness and quality of life of the citizens of Sumter County.
Photo by Nadine Pope

The next person to speak on behalf the community garden was Dr. Fred McLaughlin, who serves on the Community Benefit Committee of the PSMC Board. Dr. McLaughlin stated that a community garden goes beyond just a community garden. “From this process, we’re going to see evolving leaders in the community, better teamwork in the community and other educational activities that will be taking place,” said McLaughlin. “Of course, there will be some pros and cons and that’s where that leadership and the teamwork will come into play because within an organization, there’s always issues, but we want you to be strong and to move through that process.” McLaughlin went on to say that from an educational standpoint, the garden can also be used as a STEM laboratory outside the classroom and that it can be used to teach people how to grow food in a garden. McLaughlin also stated that Horticultural Therapy has been proven to heal people who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder being that they can enjoy nature.

“It is indeed a pleasure for me to be part of this great event,” said McLaughlin. “We will continue to pull together to make sure that we can develop other community gardens throughout the city and county.”

PSMC CEO Brandi Lunneborg stated that she is pleased to be a part of beginning the process of getting the community garden off the ground. “Healthy Sumnter began as a concept with us and other partners in the community well before the pandemic started,” said Lunneborg. “there were a lot of people involved in that process and this is now finally what is helping us come to bring one of these projects to fruition.”

Rev. Larry Sims, Pastor of the Union Tabernacle Baptist Church, gives the opening prayer at the ceremony. He also took time to describe his experience as a young boy at Brookdale Park.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Lunneborg went on to say that starting in the first week of November, citizens of Sumter County will hear more about Healthy Sumter and all the work we want to do to reach out to the entire community to find out ways to address the physical and mental health and well-being of the community. “That’s what makes us stronger, it make us more resilient when things happen like they have in the last few months,” said Lunneborg. “We want everyone to be able to benefit from what we can accomplish together and it is, as you can see, a collaboration of a lot of people.”

Lunneborg added that when Americus Mayor Barry Blount and the city council brought forward Brookdale Park as an option for where the garden should be placed, it was very exciting for her and the rest of her colleagues at Healthy Sumter who have been working on the project. She concluded her remarks by saying that she hopes that everyone will come out and help continue to move the project forward, as well as find other ways to contribute to the overall health and wellness of the citizens of Sumter County.

Brandi Lunneborg, CEO of Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, speaks to the crowd gathered at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the opening of the new Healthy Sumter Community Garden.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

In closing, Lunneborg told the crowd that the new website; www.healthysumter.org, will launch during the first week of November and that other initiatives will come about over the next few years. “If you have ideas, we opened to them,” said Lunneborg. “It is a collaboration of a lot of different entities and every person in our community is welcomed to help us make our community a better place to live, work and play, and better support those who need help in the community to have healthy food, exercise and healthy mind and body.”

Clay Jones, Chairman of the Sumter County Board of Commissioners, told the group assembled that he and his fellow commissioners are glad to be on board with the project. Jones also took time to praise the work of Fernando Jackson, or “Farmer Fernando”, as he called him, for his tireless work and leadership in making this project come to reality. “Farmer Fernando, I watched him on video. He’s been with the Governor,” said Jones. “I’ve just read a lot about the different things he’s doing in different communities,” said Jones. “With him at the helm, I think this project will take off with Phoebe and the county and the city, and this project will be a success.”

Americus City Council Member Nelson Brown speaks to the crowd gathered at the ceremony to open the Healthy Sumter Community Garden.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

The last person to speak on behalf of the Healthy Sumter Community Garden project was Americus Mayor Barry Blount. Mr. Blount told the crowd that when he was a teenager working for Coach Jack Finklea and the recreation department, part of his summer afternoon duties was to come over to Brookdale Park and cut the grass.

“With a push mower, me and some other guys came in here and cut grass several afternoons during the week, so I have some fond memories of this park as well,” said Blount. “This is the culmination of a conversation that started about two years ago with the Healthy Sumter Community at Phoebe Sumter. One of the ideas was to create community gardens throughout our community so that people would have access to fresh vegetables and fruits and things of this nature.”

Blount went on to say that the creation of the community garden in Brookdale Park is the culmination of that vision and that hopefully, other community gardens will be built throughout the city and the county. “Access to quality foods is a quality of life issue, like exercise and other things” said Blount. “In our community, we do have some issues with health; diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, things of this nature, so hopefully, with access to healthy foods, that will help that decline.”

Blount also reiterated what Fernando Jackson said earlier: The success of the garden will depend upon the involvement of the people in the community. “I encourage you. If you have a chance to donate a few hours of each week, or month, two come out here and participate because if you don’t participate, the garden probably won’t be successful,” said Blount. “Hopefully, this is a good first start and I look forward to having many more gardens throughout our community.”