URBANA — Former Peace Corps volunteer Nicole Bridges has lived in a two-room mud house among the people of a small, poor village in Zambia, and she knows how much the simple donation of a packet of vegetable seeds can mean.
With the local community's help, she hopes to bring as many packages of seeds with her as she can when she returns to this African village — Musalila, in eastern Zambia — for a month in November.
The public has a chance to help by bringing donated packages of seeds — any kind of fruit or vegetable seeds — to the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and noon 6 p.m. Saturday.
The seeds can be taken to the One Community Together stage on Broadway just north of Main Street.
"We'll have a big box on the One Community Together stage," said Scott Swartz, leader of that organization.
An AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, Bridges, 31, of Champaign, manages the Prosperity Gardens on North First Street which now includes 14 raised beds and provides educational and employment opportunities for local youths.
A University of Illinois graduate in agricultural communication, Bridges first went to Zambia in southern Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2006, working with farmers to improve the soil and women who operated a gardening project to raise money for an HIV support group.
The produce the women sold helped cover medical and funeral costs, but soon they were able to diversify what they were growing, make more money and sell some leftover seeds to other farmers, Bridges said.
The village is extremely poor, she said, and the people are wonderful.
"The people are generous, loving and have a wonderful spirit with them that kind of gets them through," she adds.
Bridges said she has continued to support the village since she returned to the U.S., making a second trip there in 2010. To help pay for this trip, she's doing baby-sitting, cat-sitting and odd jobs, she said.
In addition to bringing seeds for food, Bridges said, she wants to do more work on a library she started in the village.
The seeds help diversify a diet that consists mostly of the staple food eaten in Musalila, a starchy food "kind of like stale mashed potatoes" that is made out of ground corn flour and water and lacks nutritional value, Bridges said.
"It's all the people have to eat, and they eat it morning, noon and night," she said.
Meat is eaten rarely, she said, because there is no refrigeration.
Among the seeds she hopes to bring with her: Tomato, cucumber, okra, green beans, cherry tomato, collard greens, mustard greens, other beans turnips, squash, zucchini, pumpkin, potatoes, black eyed peas, regular peas, all kinds of peppers, beets, radishes, onions, green onion, sweet corn, sweet potato, yams, kale, herbs, spices, spinach, swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, watermelon, cantaloupe, snow peas and artichoke.
Bridges said any kind of seed donation is welcome. What she can't carry with her, she'll ship.
She remembers feeling guilty about how much she didn't get done in Musalila during her Peace Corps years, and feeling nervous on her first trip back in 2010. But people welcomed her back with open arms, Bridges said.
"One thing I heard a lot was, 'You didn't forget us,'" she said.
She also recalls her response: "I will never forget this place, and this isn't the last time I will see you."