University Park, IL,
09:11 AM

Planting Seeds of Love for Father's Day

Elroy Brown Jr. learned a lot about life from working in a garden with his father. “The main takeaway was just how much he cared for other people. That’s what I really got—selflessness.”

As an infant toddler teacher at Governors State University’s Family Development Center (FDC), Brown saw firsthand that his father planted seeds of love. Growing up in Arkansas, he pitched in when his dad acquired vacant lots and turned them into gardens, cultivating vegetables that he sometimes gave away to neighbors. “There were tough times where I’m from, and it helped to get your produce so you could save money for meat and eggs,” he said.

The lesson inspired him to bring that opportunity to the very smallest students and their families this summer at the University Sustainable Garden.

Originally cultivated in 2013, the space is a community initiative dedicated to harvesting healthy futures for youth and families in the South Suburbs, with 64 plots available for rent.

This spring, Brown worked with Paul Berwanger, Culinary Specialist, and Ken Hamlin, Child Development Associate, to expand the FDC’s small plot to a sizeable garden planted with bell peppers, zucchini squash, cherry tomatoes, collard greens and radishes. Two more plots will soon sprout corn and melons.

“Paul had worked with the kids on a small plot to grow some food they could use in the kitchen—tomatoes and zucchini for salad—in previous years, but this is more of a group effort,” said Carol Morrison, FDC’s Executive Director.

Of course the group includes the very tiniest participants. Community members who head to the garden this summer are sure to spot toddlers and preschoolers there who are learning plenty of lessons through gardening, thanks to Brown.

He began by reading the children two books, “Planting a Rainbow” and “The Surprise Garden.”

“That lets them see this is how the process starts when you plant a seed, that this is where fruits and vegetables come from,” Brown said. “That resonates.”

After that, they headed out to the garden. “I’d say, ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to plant a garden.’ We may read the stories again and build on that.

“Then I brought dirt into our classroom. We actually feel the soil. I ask them, ‘How does it feel? How does it smell?’” The next step was cultivating beans in the classroom, placing them ziplock bags with wet paper towels.

Among the tiniest gardeners are Brown’s children, who are enrolled at the center: his 16-month-old daughter, Salei, and two-year-old son, Elias. “My son can tell you a definition of what germination is,” Brown said.

The FDC even included the topic of recycling by using cupcake bins, which preschoolers used to start growing radishes.

But the lessons go deep into the heart and soul, especially when adult family members become involved. “When parents work in the garden, the kids are learning persistence. They’re seeing their parents model their emotions, being diligent and patient, keeping a good attitude. And it’s not hard for parents,” Brown said.

He looks forward to harvest time this fall, when parents will be invited to a celebratory garden party where they can taste and take home the organic vegetables their children helped grow. Next year, Brown said, the FDC will invite parents to help plant the garden in the spring and maintain it throughout the summer as well.

“The real work is maintaining and harvesting, so I want to involve parents, especially the dads, and build on other programs for them. Fathers are important, and it will be an opportunity for them to spend time with their kids.”

Parents are likely to join in. The FDC encourages frequent visits and regular participation, and Morrison said the monthly “parents night out” program is always well attended.

A parent survey last month confirmed that “one of most satisfying parts of the FDC is the family engagement piece,” Brown said.

Morrison echoed the thought. “People want to make time for their kids,” she said.

With Father’s Day on the horizon, Brown became reflective. "Working at the facility where my two youngest children are enrolled, it is difficult for me to fully express how blessed I feel to spend every hour of my day with my babies,” he said. “As parents, we at times get so selfishly committed to providing for our children financially, that we often lose focus on how important simply spending time with them is. What a privilege it is to not only observe, but actively contribute to their growth and development while I grow as a professional educator."

Garden plots are still available, according to Amanda Johnson, Officer Manager at GSU’s Facilities Department, which is currently managing it. For information, email her at or call 708.534.4515.