Posted by JRS
There’s a neighborhood garden in Arlington Heights, Illinois that is growing more than just fresh produce. It’s bringing together residents of different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultivating a sense of community.
 
It was great to see how the garden was able to transcend the financial divide that was there,” says Jake Chung, who helped spearhead the project. Chung is the assistant superintendent for personnel and planning in Arlington Heights and a University of Iowa College of Education alumnus (BA ‘96).
 
The community garden – which sits on a once-empty school district-owned lot – is between two distinct neighborhoods. One is filled with shiny row houses while the other is an older run-down apartment complex where a man’s torso and legs were once found in a dumpster.
But the garden gives residents a chance to interact and find common ground. More than 60 people came together to get it started in May 2017, and now it’s full of flowers, tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables.
 
What’s more, the garden is part of a larger project – The Dryden Place Project named after the apartment complex – that has taken root in Arlington Heights to help about five dozen low-income students succeed in school and their families be more secure overall.
The Arlington Heights school district is made up of about 5,600 students, 800 employees, and nine schools. Chung worked as a teacher and school administrator for many years before taking on his current role three and a half years ago.
 
“I understand that the reason why we’re all here – whether you’re working in a district office of working as an administrator in a school, or a classroom teacher – we’re all here to support the kids we work with,” Chung says. 
 
Two years ago, he got a group of teachers and community members together to figure out how to better support the children and their parents. What followed was a comprehensive program that brought the families of Dryden Apartments ways to read and exercise, jackets to stay warm in the winter, and food to keep them full over the summer holidays.
 
It was amazing to see the community come together and step up, he says: a not-for-profit organization sponsors a free-breakfast program over the summer, and a hospital will soon sponsor a lunch program.
 
The Rotary Club of Arlington Heights has been an important community partner for the Dryden Place Project and the Dryden Place Garden. The club has been actively involved in donating bicycles to the students that couldn't afford them, donating winter coats to keep students warm, purchasing benches for the community garden, building a small library at the garden, fixing student bicycles at the community picnic, and has provided close to $2,000 in grants. The Rotary Club of Arlington Heights has also assisted Arlington Heights School District 25 in networking with various organizations to assist the neediest students in the school district. The success of the Dryden Place Project can be attributed to the support provided by the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights.  
 
“We also found that in order to address some of the situations at the apartments themselves, then we needed to reach out to the apartment managers,” Chung says. “To our surprise, they were willing to address some of those situations. They worked with the village, they worked with us and the residents to improve some of living conditions that were there.”
 
Community not-for-profits, social service agencies, and city services were already offering strong programs, Chung adds, but too often, these groups work in silos. T
 
The Dryden Place Project gave all of these entities a chance to work together and share information rather than duplicate efforts.
 
“The apartment buildings were not in great shape – there are gangs there, the police would get called, and kids would come to school and say they heard the police last night or gunfire or the sound of an ambulance,” says Shelley Fabrizio, principal of Windsor Elementary School in Arlington Heights.
 
Fabrizio has worked for the district for 12 years and has been at Windsor Elementary for the past seven. Of her more than 515 students, 10 percent are on free-and-reduced lunch and about 15 percent are English language learners.
 
She came on board to the Dryden Place Project fairly early, she says, since so many of her students live in the complex.
 
And Fabrizio says there’s a noticeable difference in her students – already there has been a 42 percent drop in 911 calls over the past year.
 
“It’s a feeling of being in a safer environment,” she says. “We don’t start until the beginning of August – so having breakfast every day gets their brains working and ready to face whatever the day is; they can come to class and don’t have to worry about if the heat is on in their apartment. To have those basic needs met helps them focus and feel loved.”