When we first featured Sara (Uzelac ‘09) Stewart in the fall 2008 Bethel Magazine, she had just completed her master’s degree in nursing project at Bethel: a 6,000-square-foot community garden located just off of Franklin Street in South Bend. But her assignment did not end once she received her diploma.

Since planting the first seeds four years ago, Stewart has cultivated much more than cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. After only two growing seasons, the short-term project quickly blossomed into a full-blown nonprofit organization. The Unity Gardens, Inc., now consists of nearly 50 gardens across Saint Joseph County, Ind.

Stewart, the executive director of South Bend Unity Gardens, originally wanted to provide a way for disadvantaged community members to obtain healthy, locally grown food for their families. Rather than simply giving away free food, Stewart sought out ways to connect with the individuals on a more personal level. Soon, more than 100 harvesters were regularly volunteering their time in the gardens, planting seeds and bringing in supplies.

However, during the countless hours Stewart spent at the gardens each week, she began noticing a developing trend: a generational gap kept young individuals from getting involved. After adding education to the Unity Gardens’ mission statement, entire families quickly began learning how to grow, harvest and prepare their own healthy foods, something they had never been taught before. Now, they are transforming vacant land into a physically, socially and economically thriving and sustainable way of life.

“[My life] looks nothing like it used to since it is so busy,” explains Stewart. “But honestly it is what gives meaning to my life. Education is the first step towards empowerment — a positive change within a struggling community.”

With the help of the hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and energy each week to the organization, the gardens continue to rapidly expand, and not without notice. Only six months ago, Stewart was asked to collaborate with the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, which provided Unity Gardens with the classroom and office space necessary to maintain and further its educational role in the community. It is Stewart’s hope that a greenhouse can be added to the property in order to provide individuals with access to year-round educational classes.

“[This collaboration] speaks volumes that we are an organization that seeks to create a healthy community,” says Stewart. “We can’t just give out emergency food; we have to grow a healthy community through growing healthy food in order to create strength out of weaknesses.”

On May 12, the Unity Gardens staff hosted a season opening celebration at their new 10-acre LaSalle Square Unity Garden, located on Prast Boulevard in South Bend. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, was on site for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which marked the beginning of the organization’s fifth growing season. In addition, Stewart announced several new educational projects, including the Peace Bee Hives, a native planting area, Garden-to-Market plots and a composting area.

“In 2009, when we started the garden on this plot of land, I never envisioned we would progress as fast as we have,” says Stewart. “It’s home to me all summer long, planting every day to feed our community. But it is much more than that. It’s a place for people to gather, to grow relationships.”