- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Recently, Molly Rice’s backyard has become the site of a lot of dirt dumping, watermelon planting and tie-dying parties. She and her family are starting a community garden and they’ve invited the whole neighborhood to help.

Rice said the inspiration to start a garden came after the house next door became the site of two drive-by shootings and arson in June 2016.

“They got in a gang fight with the wrong gang for this neighborhood,” Rice said of the house’s previous owner. “I got all the kids up and had them sleep on the floor (the night of the shootings).”

After that, Rice’s daughter wanted to make a “peace garden” to bring some happiness back to the North Valley. The Rice family decided to acquire the lot that was the site of the shootings and the arson, as well as two more lots, and has since planted a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

“I like a lot of plants, like cucumbers, watermelon, pumpkins, tomatoes,” Amy Rice, 10, said. “(I help plant) unless the dirt has worms in it, because I hate worms.”

Rice said when she and her husband, Mike, bought their house for $10,000 in August 2015, many people expressed concerns that they were moving to an unsafe area.

“An undercover cop came up within the first two weeks of moving in and he told Mike, ‘I know this is an up-and-coming area and all, but you really need to be careful down here,’” Rice said. “I looked at him and I said, ‘It is not an up-and-coming area. I know exactly where we bought a house for $10,000.’”

But that was just the motivation Rice needed to turn the family’s peace garden into a bigger project.

“All of it’s kind of an experiment. So many people are food-insecure down here,” she said. “There’s no grocery store … and nobody has transportation to get to a grocery store where there are fruits and vegetables. We thought, ‘Let’s try and make up for some of that.’”

Recently, the garden was awarded a $1,000 grant from The Pollination Project, an online environmental group. Rice used a portion of that to purchase fresh dirt for the garden beds.

“I don’t know what’s been here in the past - old house, lead paint, car parts, needles, everything,” Rice said.

Now Rice and her family are working to plant produce, mark paths and make the garden a welcoming space for their neighbors to visit. She’s especially focused on involving the neighborhood kids.

“We found we had a lot of neighborhood kids who were unsupervised a lot,” Rice said. “We wanted to get the kids involved so they take ownership and they’ll say, ‘Hey, don’t kick over Miss Molly’s plants, because we put that there. I did that.’”

The Rice family hopes to include benches and a small basketball court in the garden. For now, they’ve got their first harvest to look forward to this fall.

“It’s a lot of work,” Rice said. “Every summer it’ll get better.”

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2sgpIpC

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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