School garden brings Joy to community

The Joy Garden behind Northside College Prep. (Jessica Sheft-Ason)

August 18, 2010 4:07:40 PM PDT
Looking down at the Joy Garden from the rooftop of Northside College Prep High School, it is hard to imagine just a few years ago it was a heap of salt and dirt.

Today the schoolyard garden-- which is tailored toward the needs of disabled students-- is enjoyed by the entire Northwest Side community. Student volunteers have worked at the garden all summer long.

"We were part of Mayor Daley's six week program," said Ariel Basora, a student who worked at the garden. "But then we decided to volunteer here because we liked it so much."

Students have been an integral part to the garden-- from digging the water drainage system to planting flowers and vegetables to even pouring the pervious concrete, which lets the ground underneath the pathways continue to grow.

"Our motto is that 'We move dirt,' but that's not all encompassing. We try to get really creative with the stuff we get, because it's mostly donated," said Basora.

The idea for the Joy Garden came from former student, Brianna Birman when she was a junior at Northside. Inspired by her disabled aunt, Samantha Joy Birman, Birman started work on the abandoned plot of land behind the school.

"I had this idea, and Mr. Coy said 'Go for it'. I wanted it to be a place that combined special needs, green living, and natural habitat all in one," said Birman.

The garden soon became a group effort with Birman's family and classmates teaming up with Urban Habitat Chicago (UHC), Urban Wildlife Coalition, Repkin Biosystems and CASE, a student-run environmental group at Northside Prep.

What makes the Joy Garden unique is both its eco-friendly design and handicap accessibility.

"We chose this plot of land next to the special education department so that they could have easy access to the garden," said Birman.

"We wanted to let [the special needs students] see nature and let them experience it. We made paths out of the pervious concrete so they can roll in on their wheelchair and see and touch the plants," said Basora.

UHC,, coordinates volunteers on Wednesday and Saturdays.

CASE has been involved in other environmentally conscious projects, including installing solar panels, which heat the indoor pool, on the school rooftop.