High school students create 20-plot garden for refugees living in Hiawatha

Tomatoes grow in a plot at a community garden started by Iowa BIG students in Hiawatha on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Many
Tomatoes grow in a plot at a community garden started by Iowa BIG students in Hiawatha on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Many of the gardners are immigrants who don't own vehicles, and the students found a location that was central to where many of them live in order to help them reduce travel time to and from their plots. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Before moving to the United States, Bhutanese refugee Chandra Magar often gardened.

But in her Hiawatha apartment, she found herself far from any land where she could grow tomatoes, chili plants and other vegetables that help feed her multigenerational family of six.

This summer, she’s started growing food again in a new community garden within walking distance — one created by a group of Iowa BIG students, a project-based high school program in Cedar Rapids.

She likes that the garden has given her space to grow organic food, Magar said, speaking to a Gazette reporter through her 19-year-old daughter, Usanta, who acted as a translator. Magar said she enjoys walking to and from the plots for exercise as well.

The 20-plot garden opened at the corner of Emmons Street and Miller Road in Hiawatha, thanks to four teenagers who heard about refugees in the area who missed growing their own food.

“We were passionate about work that could help others,” said Isha Kalia, 17, a student at Iowa BIG and Linn-Mar High School.

Kalia’s teacher, Becky Herman, connected students with the Catherine McAuley Center — a nonprofit serving immigrants and refugees — who helped students identify where refugees were living.

From there, the students set about finding vacant, accessible land.

By “guessing who owned the plots,” Kalia said, they found Barb Kellogg, the owner of the Servpro across the street from the garden. She donated the land to students.


“The land was sitting there doing nothing, so we thought we’d put it to use,” said Kellogg, who has owned the commercial and residential cleaning and restoration business since 1992. “ … People wanted to have gardens, and I’m all for that. It was mostly students that came after us — I liked that part.”

The teenagers — Kalia, Brooke Dean, Ellie Bonefas and Jack Studier — put together presentations for the Hiawatha City Council, handled the paperwork and, with help from nonprofit Matthew 25, tilled the land for the garden.

“I hope it gets bigger by next year,” Kellogg said.

More than 20 gardeners showed up at the plots on the garden’s opening day, Kalia said. She and other students visit once or twice a week to check on the garden’s maintenance and progress.

“I know they’re coming back because the plants have been weeded, and the plots are being maintained,” she said.

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