Refugee Community Training Garden Welcomes 10 Families from Bhutan and Burma

I am walking through rows of radishes and kale in the two-acre refugee garden at the corner of 39th Avenue and Dunlap, and my tour guide, a nice man who works at the church across the street, is talking about hoeing and irrigation and reclaiming the land. But what I am thinking is "Warning! Warning, Will Robinson! Danger!"

For this guy, the plot of land we're hiking through is an opportunity for refugee families to support themselves by growing produce. For me, it's the place where I used to play Lost in Space with the neighborhood kids in the 1960s.

I was always The Robot.

This land, owned by the Cross-Connection International Fellowship Church, was a vacant lot since before my parents built the house around the corner in 1966 — the house in which they still live. Each morning, as I drive past on my way to my parents', I glance over at the vacant lot at 3901 West Dunlap and remember what it felt like to be a 5-year-old, stranded on the moon with Angela Cartwright and Debby the Bloop because our spaceship had malfunctioned.

But about six weeks ago, I nearly wrecked my car as I drove past. There was a fence going up around the lot that had been a wasteland since before I could remember. A few days later, a crew was leveling the ground, and about a week after that, a giant sign was erected, announcing the Refugee Community Training Garden. My former playground was becoming something real: an opportunity for 10 refugee families from Bhutan and Burma to benefit from working a plot of land, eating and selling the vegetables they grew there. The refugees, sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, are working toward American citizenship in a program that resettles families and provides them with the education and support they need to acclimate to their new home.

It seemed fitting, somehow. After all, the Robinsons were also a displaced family, learning to cope in a foreign place that wasn't always welcoming. And though June Lockhart had that wild contraption that washed and folded her laundry for her, she and her husband and kids did have to grow their own vegetables. (In one episode, the vegetables grew huge and came to life and — led by a giant talking carrot — began, um, stalking the Robinson clan.)

Community gardens are all the rage these days. Harvest for Humanity, a national self-reliance organization, has produce gardens all over the Valley; the site of the old Harmon Library, south of Buckeye, has been turning out vegetables for communities in need for some time; and there's even a senior citizen garden organized by Tiger Mountain Foundation, where oldsters can rent plots for planting in a lot adjacent to their apartments.

Most of the suburban ones are in historic neighborhoods like Willo and Coronado and F.Q. Story or, according to Barry Shemer, in rural parts of Maricopa County. "We wanted to do a garden in a more urban area," Shemer told me, "for a lot of reasons, including because so many of the families who work these gardens don't have transportation to get out to the land they're working when it's way outside the city."

Shemer was a guiding force behind turning a long-vacant chunk of land into something useful. In affiliation with the Phoenix Rotary Club 100 — the largest Rotary in the Southwest — and a bunch of other organizations, Shemer hooked up with Cross-Connection International Fellowship Church, just across the street. (When we played Lost in Space, this church was a spaceship that had crash-landed and was probably filled with evil green men.) "A fair portion of the church's congregation is made up of refugees," Shemer says. "The pastor wanted to turn the lot into something useful, and, anyway, he was tired of cleaning and weeding it."

Shemer got busy raising the $83,000 necessary to turn the former make-believe planet into land suitable for farming. His Rotary and the church were major contributors, and five grants totaling $25,000 helped. Salt River Project contributed an irrigation system, and church members helped level and clear the lot.

But why now, nearly a half-century after the church that owns the land was built, is this lot finally becoming something?

"It's a God thing," according to Pastor Jeff Jackson. Jackson moved here in 2007 to succeed the church's original pastor, who wasn't concerned that the church's adjacent property went unused. "I was out there weeding one day, because if you don't, the city writes you up. And I was thinking, 'Lord, I hate yard work, and I want to do something to expand the kingdom.' And then the idea of the community garden came to me. Now, we're growing vegetables to feed and support entire families. And that's a very good thing."

Sure it is. So long as the vegetables don't start talking and attempt a revolution.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela