A half-acre project in a Burnsville community garden gives recovering drug and alcohol addicts a productive outlet.
Forget the drugs and alcohol.
These men are focused on peppers, tomatoes, kale and snap peas.
"You wouldn't believe how great the food is," said Brandon Stigney, who comes to the community garden in Burnsville once or twice a week from Minnesota Teen Challenge, along with peers overcoming their addictions. "It's fun. I love it."
The half-acre garden at International Outreach Church is the latest effort by fledgling Burnsville nonprofit Woodhill Urban Agriculture.
The clients from Minnesota Teen Challenge, a faith-based addiction recovery program for teens and adults, come once or twice a week -- some out of simple desire to tend the plants in the fresh air, some to meet required community service hours.
The fresh produce they harvest goes back to the Teen Challenge campus in Minneapolis, where it's incorporated into the more than 1,000 meals served each day to adults and teens in treatment.
Woodhill, launched a couple years ago, has also cultivated garden projects in Burnsville at Wolk Park and almost every other open space on the church grounds. Many of the plots are tended by immigrants.
Co-founder Elizabeth Kackman said that working with Teen Challenge has been a longtime goal because it's a chance to reach those who could use a little extra help.
"We're all an extension of the communities we live in," she said. "We need each other."
Mary Kay Bensen, foundation and grant manager at Teen Challenge, helped fulfill the goal after reading a story about Woodhill in the Christian Examiner newspaper. "On a whim, I e-mailed and Elizabeth responded," Bensen said.
Enter grant money from the Minnesota Timberwolves and donations from Valley Natural Foods, and two gardens began to take shape: a smaller plot at Teen Challenge's women's campus and the half-acre of vegetables at International Outreach Church.
A pitch to clients of Teen Challenge, which also serves adults, quickly drew more than a dozen volunteers for gardening and extracurricular cooking and nutrition classes.
"They were like, hands down, 'Let's do it, when can we start?'" Kackman said.
Yet there was one big hurdle to overcome.
Kackman and her husband, Tom, have gardened for years, but never on the scale of the Teen Challenge project. Plus, the Teen Challenge participants would be able to come only a few hours each week.
"We knew we would need someone with farm expertise to help us," Kackman said.
Petr Stavitskiy, an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan, was the answer. Kackman had noticed him expertly tending one of the nearby community garden plots; he had been a farmer in his home country.
Stavitskiy became Woodhill's first employee, taking charge of the Teen Challenge plot with his niece, Oxana Stalmakov, helping him translate.
"For him, this is relaxation from all the noise and busyness that's going on around him," Stalmakov said.
Stavistskiy spends three to four hours a day in the Teen Challenge garden. He hopes it helps the men who are trying to overcome their addictions.
"He knows for sure that the work outside is healing itself," Oxana translated. "When he was planting, sowing, taking care of it, he was always praying that God would bless this project."
Talk to any of the men who came from Teen Challenge to tend the garden on a recent afternoon, and the word "blessing" comes up repeatedly.
For some, it's about the way the garden and learning about nutrition has helped them respect their bodies and make better choices.
Others say it's a great way to give back, work hard in the fresh air and maybe pick up a lifelong hobby.
After each session in the garden, they grasp hands, stand in a circle and pray.
As Dave McCoy, a former cocaine addict headed toward two years of sobriety, put it, "It is about doing everything together because there's no way you're going to stay sober on your own."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286