FFA members 'dig in' to help Madison community

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

MADISON - As commercial jets and fighter aircraft roared across the sky above them, FFA members from Hartford, Brillion, Bay Port and Merrill worked below, readying a small garden plot for more tomato and pepper plants during the 10th annual Wisconsin FFA Day of Service on Monday, June 11.

FFA students from Hartford, Brillion, Merrill and Bay Port work in the community garden at Goodman Community Center during Day of Service on June 11, 2018.

By the end of the day, Day of Service coordinator Beth Rieth says FFA members will have provided 3,750 volunteer hours to the Madison community since the venture started back in 2009.

"“Living to Serve” is the last line of the FFA motto and FFA members are excellent examples of service, either at convention or back home in their local chapters," Rieth said. 

The motto was splashed across the back of the T-shirts donned by the small army of FFA members who fanned out across Madison, lending a hand at city parks, the UW Arboretum, community centers, retirement communities and food banks.

"This is our way of giving back to this community that does such a good job of supporting us and providing a great atmosphere when we come down here," said Bay Port FFA Advisor Ryan Weed.

Weed's FFA chapter was part of the group that was assigned to help out at the Goodman Community Center. Nestled in the heart of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara (SASY) neighborhood, the building was best known as the Steinle Turret Machine Co., whose heavy duty turret lathes churned out field artillery wheel hubs, shells and more during World War I.

The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a vital hub in this northwest neighborhood.

"This community center welcomes anyone, no matter who you are, from small children beginning at age 3 to seniors who come in around 9 o'clock for a cup of coffee," said Edith Hilliard, executive assistant.

The center also sports a gymnasium, outdoor playground and splash pad, indoor classrooms, food pantry and more. Hilliard says hundreds of people pass through the doors on any given day, and says the center couldn't run without its loyal band of volunteers.

Executive Assistant Edith Hilliard stands outside the door of the historic Goodman Community Center in Madison.

Which is why Hilliard was pleased to see FFA members willing to volunteer their time.

"Some kids nowadays may hesitate to volunteer their time without getting paid, but they don't understand the ramifications when filling out applications for college. That person looking at the application doesn't know anything about them. However, when they see volunteerism listed, it says something about who you are," Hilliard pointed out.

The Goodman Community Center also helps train youth for jobs within the food service industry. With commercial-style kitchens and an in-building case, high school students learn skills through the TEENworks program.

Some of the produce used in the culinary classroom originates from the center's small orchard of fruit trees located along the Capital City Bike Trail that runs adjacent to the property and the center's garden plot located across the street in the Atwood Community Gardens across the street, which stretches along the bike trail for nearly five blocks.

Hannah Verghuis was especially intrigued by the use of every available inch of greenspace for gardening in the urban neighborhood.

FFA students from Hartford, Brillion, Merrill and Bay Port work in the community garden at Goodman Community Center during Day of Service on June 11, 2018.

"Up in Brillion we're so used to wide open spaces that we almost take it for granted," she said. "They use every inch of space."

TEENworks Manager Keith Pollock says the large urban community garden tucked between two city streets on an old railroad right of way proves that a little soil can yield much.

"By working here today, I hope they realize that you don't need a farm to grow plants and in an urban environment with a small piece of land you can grow a lot of food," Pollock said.

Many FFA members were taking mental notes as they were turning soil, setting plants, weeding and tying delicate tomato vines to a makeshift trellis. Kyle Cichanofsky would like to expand Bay Port High School's small garden plot.

"I'd like to see if we could expand the size of our garden plot so that we could get more members of the community involved and keep it going year round so that the program stays really strong," he said.

FFA students from Hartford, Brillion, Merrill and Bay Port work in the community garden at Goodman Community Center during Day of Service on June 11, 2018.

Merrill FFA Advisor Michelle Heeg says her students have been positively impacted by participating in community service projects during the Wisconsin FFA Convention.

"Every year I tell the kids to gather ideas while they're down here so you can bring them back to our chapter," Heeg said. 

One of her chapter's officers Brandon Spolz was doing just that as he pulled weeds and turned over soil for a new row of tomato plants.

"I think it would be a great idea to start a community garden for the elderly living in assisted living places," Spolz said. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty, as long as we're helping people out in the community."

At the end of the day, Hilliard says the staff at Goodman Community Center is grateful for youth eager to serve the Madison community, even if they're just visiting for a few days.

"It's a good experience for kids coming from small towns to be able to see the diversity that goes on in this building on any given day," she said.