Temikia Jones grew up in Lakeside Park, Avon Park's transitional housing community, a temporary place to live for homeless families and those about to be homeless in Highlands County. Now she's giving back to the area by running the community garden and starting a 4-H club.
"I lived there 20 years in that apartment," said the former childcare worker who now works as a school bus attendant part-time and is a full-time student in SFSC's dental assisting program. "Then I moved across the street in my own apartment," she said.
In 2011, a community garden was started to give residents access to fresh, healthy produce. Each family receives a portion of the garden, which is mostly organized in plots of large, deep containers. They can plant whatever they like, including things like peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and squash. "I started out just coming and working out in the garden," Jones said. Charlie Reynolds, the Master Gardener overseeing the garden, invited her to take the Master Gardening course.
"Now I am the Master Gardener of the garden," she said.
Jones said she comes out to the garden as a stress reliever. She didn't have much experience growing plants before, and in addition to what she learned in the Master Gardener program, she said she is learning by experience.
"You learn from things dying. Once they die, I figure out what did I do and what can I do better," she added.
The mother of 16-year-old Da'jor, 14-year-old Shanayll and 11-year-old Raven also quickly realized what a huge undertaking the community garden was, especially for a busy working mom who was also going to school.
A common problem occurred when residents left the community to find more permanent housing - their plots were left untended. Sometimes, even if the children in a family were interested in the garden, their parents might not want to accompany them, and the children weren't allowed unattended in the garden.
Jones' daughter Raven took an interest in the garden and helped her, but it was still too much work for the two of them. They solicited the help of a local 4-H group, the Country Clovers, but Jones felt that maintaining the garden was too much of a burden on the club as well.
"We decided to start our own club, so we could have it right here in the community. Nobody has to travel. It won't be a strain. It's fun for the kids," Jones said.
The club started up this fall, and currently has 11 active members, including Jones' son and two daughters. On a day off school, the club members and other kids from the community tore about with garbage bags in their hands, weeding the plots while Jones pointed out which stems and leaves belonged to an actual vegetable plant and not a weed.
"It's extra work, but you enjoy it," said the 36-year-old with a big grin, surrounded by 15 noisy youngsters.
Jones' daughter Raven said she enjoys learning about the plants. D'marcus Perry, 7, said the club is fun and he likes learning about food. Six-year-old Christopher Kelly likes "the sweeping."
Jones said it feels great to give back to this community. She recalled when she was a girl living here, a local woman opened up an after-school program for a short time. "When that closed down, we were running around making mischief," she remarked.
With the 4-H club, Jones said the kids "can be learning, doing something structured, something that's keeping them out of trouble. That's always been a passion for me."
The Dream Chasers 4-H club is so new that Jones said right now the focus is on learning. "This is a new experience for all of us. We are basically going in with our eyes closed trying to feel our way" with a lot of help from the Country Clovers. She hopes to eventually grow the club to include children from outside the housing development.
"I want a whole bunch of the kids in the community to be able to just explore and learn new stuff," she said. "I have so many plans and trips that I have in my head that I want to do. I think that's the teacher in me - wanting to see them learning and enjoying learning. I think the 4-H club will help them with that."