On Saturday, May 21, Homefirst Interfaith Housing & Family Services held its second annual Spring Planting Celebration at the organization's community gardens in Scotch Plains and Plainfield. Participants volunteered their time to arrange wooden garden beds and plant the 400+ seedlings they had helped raise over the past two months.

Homefirst, an organization based in Plainfield, NJ, is dedicated to improving the lives of those in need in the local area. Homefirst's goal is to help neighborhood families obtain housing they can afford and get back on their feet through offering housing opportunities as well as a wide range of other vital services. After sensing problems related to the limited access and rising cost of quality food, the organization combated the issue by creating a community garden on Homefirst property in Plainfield in the spring of 2010.

During the garden's first harvesting season, more than 250 lbs. of produce was collected, distributed and prepared in Homefirst cooking classes for local families. Such success inspired Homefirst employees and volunteers to create another community garden on a property in Scotch Plains.

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Months of planning and support ensured that the Spring Planting Celebration was a success. Seed kits containing plant seeds, soil and small pots were constructed at Scotch Plains' annual Martin Luther King Day of Service and were distributed to youth organizations in the area such as Scotch Plains' Park Middle School Environmental Club and Westfield's Holy Trinity Interparochial School Girl Scouts. Scotch Plains' Terrill Middle School was also active in the planning of the gardens, and St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Cranford played a large role in funding the wooden beds. Additionally, the senior class from Wardlaw Hartridge volunteered time constructing garden beds, tables and benches for the gardens. The day of the Celebration, dozens of volunteers from Temple Sholom, the New Providence Home Farming group, and other affiliations also donated their time and tools to lend a helping hand. "It's so great to take part in the planting today," said Homefirst intern Erin Brown. "This event offers individuals a way to get involved in their own community to help make the lives of those around us better, and everyone has put so much work into ensuring that the gardens are a success."

Aside from helping Homefirst fulfill its goal of providing nutritious food for local families, this year's Spring Planting Celebration also gave those who participated a new perspective on homelessness and the importance of community. "I think the girls could all say that they have a new perspective on who may be homeless and how much support it takes to get out of the situation," said Jacque Burke, one of the leaders of the Holy Trinity Girl Scout troop. "The girls also learned that there are many things that ten and eleven year olds can do to make a difference in their community.  Packing, growing, and planting gardens was a great project that gave the girls a sense of pride and accomplishment."

Both community gardens will be maintained by Christian Berk, a student at Hobart William Smith College focusing on sustainable agriculture, as well as Master Gardener Karen Berk and Susan Oldroyd Laffler, Homefirst's Director of Development and Public Relations. Throughout the summer, harvesting days, arts and crafts, sustainable agriculture lessons and cooking classes will be offered to community members in conjunction with Homefirst's newly renovated Family Success Center, a place that will offer a variety of opportunities to families in need. Collected fruits, herbs and vegetables will also be divided equally into produce packages for distribution among Homefirst families. "Planting the community gardens and watching them thrive is both inspiring and vital for Homefirst," said Garden Manager 'Farmer' Christian Berk. "The gardens have become a place for the community to gather. We look forward to a successful year, and none of this would have been possible without the help and support of our volunteers and all of the local businesses that kindly donated their supplies to us."

As a nonprofit organization, Homefirst prospers on the support of volunteers and donors. If you are interested in becoming a donor or want to take part in Homefirst workshops, we encourage you to visit the Homefirst office in Plainfield for a one-hour informative tour of our affordable housing. The next tours are scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Friday, June 24th and July 29th, 2011. Please RSVP for house tours to Rick Porter at (908) 753-4001 ext. 24 or by e-mail at rick@homefirstinc.org. Additionally, if you or your local volunteer group would like to help with harvesting or gardening workshops Thursdays throughout the summer, please contact Susan Oldroyd Laffler at susan@homefirstinc.org or (908) 753-4001 ext. 20.

Homefirst provides housing for homeless families and support services and in order to promote personal development, self-sufficiency and community building. Homefirst is located at 1009 Park Avenue, Plainfield NJ. www.homefirstinc.org