CHAMPAIGN — There were fewer participants in the C-U at Work Prosperity Gardens program this year because of COVID-19, but the effort is still a growing concern. As in carrots, radishes and helping previously homeless participants find a place to live.
Prosperity Gardens Director Nicole Bridges Musumeci said nine people were employed during the March 1-Nov. 5 work season.
“We had fewer participants this year largely due to C-U at Home (shelter) was closed for the bulk of the summer months” because of the pandemic, Musumeci said.
But while quantity was down, quality was up, according to the director.
The program ramped up from a two-day to a four-day work week to become a legitimate part-time job.
Employees also worked on maintaining housing or obtaining housing, “so by the end of the program, we had every participant housed.”
Musumeci said during the summer, the program was also able to “envelop some mental-health services for the first year.”
This was the second season of the partnership between the City of Champaign Township and C-U at Home. The program provides jobs, life skills and occupational training for homeless and formerly homeless people.
Participants are paid for their work. When the program started in 2018, participants would pick up trash four hours a day, four days a week.
Last year, with the addition of Prosperity Gardens, the participants began getting their hands dirty in a different way by growing things and building things.
“It’s really blossomed into a thriving work program, just an amazing partnership between the township and C-U at Home,” said Rob Dalhaus III, community outreach and development director at C-U at Home.
Musumeci said C-U at Home determines which individuals are suited for the Prosperity Gardens program, with one requirement that they are working toward obtaining housing. Another requirement is that the individuals work toward obtaining permanent employment after the year in the program.
Participants receive a housing voucher — subsidized rent.
“The part-time job provides enough to cover the rent and enough to piece together a decent living,” Musumeci said.
“Finding other employment is something we work in. The idea is we’ve armed the people with the day-to-day skills they need.”
During the season, the program produced and distributed more than 10,000 pounds of fresh, organic produce.
Workers also built a new shelving unit, two new washstands, a small greenhouse and 18 new raised beds.
They also participated in landscaping projects that included a new brick border wall and the planting of more than 130 annuals and perennials at both garden locations to improve the beauty of the sites and attract new pollinators.
Musumeci said the first financial literacy class for employees was held, and two individuals were able to open checking accounts for the first time.
The workers also attended an eight-week urban agriculture class taught by University of Illinois Extension.
C-U at Home is a nonprofit ministry in Champaign designed to engage and mobilize the community to house and support the most vulnerable homeless. Prosperity Gardens is a program of the City of Champaign Township that employees homeless individuals on urban farms.