July 26, 2022 // Diocese

Miss Virginia’s dream still growing as garden takes root

Virginia Schrantz, known locally as Miss Virginia, had an open-door policy for those in need. A food pantry named in her honor operates out of Schrantz’s former residence at 1312 S. Hanna St., Fort Wayne. In 1982, Mother Teresa visited her home, and a decade later, Schrantz was recognized with the International Service to Mankind Award in Washington, D.C., according to the organization’s literature. Though she passed away in 1998, her door still opens, now from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fruit, vegetables, grains and meats are distributed to the needy from the food pantry as part of the agency’s Balanced and Nutritional Food Program (BNFP). 

Volunteer and garden coordinator Rod Smith, left, helps place support fencing for the garden’s watermelons.

Last year was the first for fruit and vegetable gardens at the home steeped in history. The initial dozen beds grew to 24 this year.

Greg Witte, Executive Director of the pantry since 2019, said he attended a seminar at Purdue Fort Wayne on food deserts. “They touched on community gardens and my thoughts at the time were to look at the possibilities for Miss Virginia to have something small,” he said. 

After visiting St. Henry Catholic Church, Fort Wayne, which has a number of community gardens, Witte took the idea to his board of directors. “I planted that seed in the board’s ear,” he said. Soon after, Rod Smith took over the project. “He made it happen,” Witte said.  

Fort Wayne resident Rod Smith has used his retirement, in part, to help that beautiful legacy grow. One of Smith’s roles as a volunteer at the Miss Virginia Food Pantry is to oversee the community garden plots, where the harvest is given almost exclusively to those visiting the pantry.  

Smith was looking for a way to give back after retiring from software consulting. “I was looking for ways to help people who needed to be fed, so I met the pantry director in the summer of 2020 and submitted a volunteer application,” he said. 

This season, the volunteer garden team of 16 is growing beets, cucumbers, eggplant, flowers, herbs, collards, kale, okra, onions, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, raspberries, spinach, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, turnips, watermelon and zucchini. “We selected crops to plant based on what we thought guests of the pantry would like to eat,” Smith said.   

Almost everything growing in the garden has been donated, he continued. Guests brought raspberry and mint plants and volunteers supplied seeds and other starter plants. To go from 12 to 24 beds cost about $3700, according to Smith, which went to basic supplies like lumber, soil, the irrigation system and signage. 

Signs of ripening produce alert volunteers, notifying them when the task of harvest will need to be added to the other jobs they do. 

Smith sees value in gardens in general. “Gardens are important,” he said, “they directly supply the material resource of food … they symbolically illustrate how humans are meant to mediate between heaven and earth and … they set an example for people in the community of the work that is needed for us to feed each other.”

Part of that work of mediation is setting standards for quality, and those standards begin from the ground up, quite literally in this case.

“They put in all this great, dark soil. This is a treat,” Kathy Branam said. The substance of the raised bed is not the only treat for volunteers. Branam said she enjoys learning about gardening and meeting new people in her role as a volunteer. 

Elaine and Dan Gesick moved to the area recently to be near family and learned about Miss Virginia when representatives from the Volunteer Center, a Fort Wayne organization that connects people with charities that could use volunteers, came to a local mall. Elaine loves to garden, and the couple recently retired from working at Seattle Pacific University. The pair seconded Branam’s belief that volunteering is a great way to meet new people. Dan said that there is a “sense of creating something” in the garden, and there was a sense of sharing a common interest with fellow volunteers from the outset. Volunteers all commented on the simple joy of working in the garden and getting their hands a little dirty. “I don’t know why I ever bring my [garden] gloves. I never use them,” Elaine laughed.   

Those interested in sharing their blessings – whether of time, finances or donations of food or plants – at Miss Virginia’s Garden can contact Executive Director Greg Witte at [email protected] or visit missvirginiafoodpantry.com. 

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