In Lawrence Heights, Jesse Zorzella is making a little go a long way.
After working with not-for-profit group African Food Basket for six years, Zorzella took what he learned with the affordable food charity and followed its model to launch his own backyard garden program in the neighbourhood. He even managed to get funding for it, albeit not a lot.
“I got about $150 for the seedlings,” he says, while giving the Town Crier a tour of some of the gardens he’s built. “So it’s not really that much.”
What can $150 fund? In Zorzella’s hands, it’s enough to give 20 families — and counting — their own backyard gardens.
The soil he uses is donated, and his team of three youths — two boys, ages 15 and 16, as well as a 17-year-old girl — are paid by Tropicana Community Services, a Toronto-based organization that gives summer work to youth in high-risk areas, placing them in jobs for up to 35 hours per week.
On the way to see a garden on Bagot Court, Zorzella stops when a teenage boy on a bike approaches on Dorney Court.
He tells the youth to make sure he has clothes he can paint in.
“Are we helping the guys with the mural project?” the boy asks, referring to a new mural being painted on Ranee Avenue that day.
Zorzella tells him that’s the one and he’ll meet him at the community centre shortly. The boy bikes away and seems excited about the afternoon work to come.
“It’s good because that was me before, I was asking what we were going to do and where we were going to go,” Zorzella says. “It does make me feel good that I’m passing on the torch because maybe one day he’ll do something way better than I could think of.”
In fact, it was a very similar situation that got Zorzella, now 23, into gardening in the first place.
It was back in 2006 and someone from African Food Basket approached him and his friends, telling them if they wanted a job they could get one with him.
“We were like ‘nah, get out of here,’ ” Zorzella says. “He told us, ‘You can do this training and then we’ll get you a job.’ And I said ‘alright.’ ”
Though sceptical, he was lured by the promise of money to try it out, and from there his interest blossomed.
“It was just a job at first, but it was interesting, so I got into it,” he says.
This year, Zorzella started a backyard garden program in order to try to give people the option of growing their own produce, instead of relying on grocery stores for vegetables, which he says can be expensive.
“This is exactly the goal we’re trying to get to, getting people to feed themselves and not going to the grocery store and spending so much,” he says standing behind a yard with massive tomato plants and an extensive collection of herbs. “This is organic — it’s safe and inexpensive.”
Though that garden was done entirely by the homeowner and only the soil came from Zorzella’s program, he says it’s a perfect example of what he wants to see more of in the future.
With limited funding so far, he’s only been able to help people get started on smaller gardens, but the interest is definitely there.
“I handed out flyers to the whole neighbourhood, then I got a big demand from so many people that I had to put some on a waiting list,” he says. “I’m still getting people calling. I can try (to get to them) but I need more help.”
Aside from the backyard gardens, Zorzella also manages the garden behind the Lawrence Heights Community Centre on Replin Road.
There, he not only built an extensive garden with various vegetables, greens and herbs, but also a compost bin and a structure to redirect rainwater.
Of course, he quickly admits he didn’t do it himself. And aside from his team of three teens working on the backyard garden project, he also has occasional “boys’ clubs” where he gets kids from ages 10 to 13 to volunteer to help him with the various projects.
“The kids put a lot of work into this, I can’t take the credit,” he says. “I think I owe them a big pizza party.”
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