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Rosie Willis of Fresh Starts Community Garden

This February, Employment Connection is celebrating Black History Month by honoring local leaders in the St. Louis region. Today we recognize Ms. Rosie Willis, leader of the Fresh Starts Community Garden in North St. Louis.

In 2009, Ms. Willis led the charge to transform a vacant weed- and trash-covered city lot into a source of beauty and fresh, organic produce for the JeffVanderLou Neighborhood. She rallied fellow residents to help build the garden on a shoestring budget as they struggled to find sources for funding, gardening tools, seeds, lumber for raised beds, and water to irrigate plants.


Eventually, Ms. Willis applied for and received a small grant from Operation Brightside, which allowed her to buy gardening tools, flower bulbs, and discounted cut lumber from a local company. As the group gained momentum, local Alderwoman Marlene Davis approved funding to expand the garden across another six lots.


Today, space that was once covered with trash, weeds, tall grass, and drug needles is the Fresh Starts Community Garden, where Ms. Willis continues to work tirelessly to bring fresh vegetables to fellow neighbors. The JeffVanderLou neighborhood is a recognized food desert, and the garden provides access to healthy food for many area low-income families.


Fresh Starts has also helped to build relationships among residents and other stakeholders as they spend time gardening together, and was recently named Best Community Hang-Out Garden by Gateway Greening. Since there is always work to be done in the garden, it has also been a source of youth employment opportunities for the past several years. An annual Fresh Starts Candlelight Dinner event each summer brings together neighbors and guests to share special dishes, live music, and conversation.


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