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A Community Builder Finds a Patch To Grow

A former teacher leads the way for a city's first community garden

Dale Cracas is standing alone in a patchwork field of rich brown mounds of dirt. The 72-year-old retired government teacher is dwarfed by the half-acre community garden that is set to open June 1.

Rake in hand, he is widening the four-by-eight-foot beds that he hopes will be popping with crops by mid-summer. For a moment, a passer-by might feel a morsel of sympathy for Cracas, toiling away in the hot sun all alone.

But only for a moment.

Within 10 minutes a pick-up pulls up to deliver Bruce Peepers, also retired, who dons some work gloves, grabs a rake and starts helping.

This is how it goes for the next half-hour as workers from the department show up to check on the newly installed water lines that run through the center of the Avon Lake Community Garden. Moments later, several employees from Life Style Landscapers show up with a Caterpillar dirt mover.

“The other Cat overheated so we called Lifestyle and I pretty much told (owner) Mike Sebastian to get one down here,” Cracas said.

One call was all it took. Just like that, the dirt mover is unloaded. Brian Klunk, one of Cracas’ former students, hops on and furiously begins leveling the area that was damaged when the water line was put in.

By midday, other volunteers, including master organic gardener and Avon Lake resident Al Hobar show up, and like a hive, Avon Lake’s brand new community garden is swarming with activity.

A true community garden

It’s perfectly symbolic of what the garden stands for: A community gathering place that brings together people from throughout the city with a common mission of bringing even more people together.

“There has been tremendous community involvement,” Peepers said. “There are so many people involved.”

The pair have lead the charge since Peepers returned from a trip to Hilton Head two years ago, where he saw a community garden. He joined forces with Cracas and the two began planning in earnest in November 2010. They recruited Hobar, who has his own organic garden, to help with planning and execution.

“I have garden installation experience, and helped out with Oberlin’s community garden,” Hobar said. “This is just one-of-a-kind; no one has anything like this in the country.”

Hobar is just one of many in the impressive network of volunteers Cracas and Peepers have built.

Cracas, who worked as a real estate agent after he retired from teaching, also sits on the , a connection that came in handy when he and Peepers approached the school board about using space at for the project. The board agreed and the garden sprouted on school grounds.  

A dream within reach

As Cracas looks out at the field, you can see him imagining how the garden will look in another month when the 140 plots — which sold out last year — are filled with crops and their caretakers.

In the next few days, city workers and volunteers will fence in the garden, ensuring that the many deer that live in the city don’t make it their feeding grounds. The garden then will be ready for planting.

That wasn’t the case last year when after months of planning, networking and securing funds needed for the garden, the year’s efforts washed away after months of record rainfall forced the project's cancellation.

With this year’s mild winter, the garden's construction moved fast.

One developer trucked 600 cubic yards of quality topsoil to the site, which is across the street from the new development.

Volunteers show up regularly to work the ground, spread mulch — gathered from the city’s community mulch pile — and widen beds. Church volunteers, civic volunteers and high school Key Club members, many of them who’ve known Cracas for years, donated their time on .

The networking and outreach has helped moved the project far enough along that Cracas can begin looking at a few years down the road.

“My dream is that the () fifth- and sixth-graders will plant and care for the crops,” he said, noting the school district has eight plots. “Then they will harvest them, take them into the kitchen, clean, process and sell them as part of the lunch menu. It will teach them free enterprise.”

It could happen. As Cracas has learned, if you build and nurture it, the dream will continue to grow.

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