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Bill Zelenka, head of Olive's Neighborhood Garden for the Hungry, is working to create a small park by the Kennedy Expressway in Jefferson Park. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

JEFFERSON PARK — Jefferson Park neighbors have spent the past 18 years turning a patch of vacant land on the edge of the Kennedy expressway into an outdoor gathering space — and now they want to do it again.

Olive's Neighborhood Garden for the Hungry, near Laramie Avenue and Ainslie Street, supplies fresh produce to local food pantries. Volunteers started building a small park a short walk away earlier this year.

The garden and the park are along the edge of the Kennedy Expressway. Bill Zelenka, Olive's garden manager, said the properties contained homes years ago, but the buildings were demolished when the highway went in.

The parcels sat vacant for years.

“We're so land-locked up here, any spot like this should be turned into green,” Zelenka said, gesturing to the lush lot that is being turned into a park.

Work started this spring, and it will take years to build it out, Zelenka said.

“You’ll come here in 15 years, we’re gonna have a patio, a nice pavilion, a waterfall, two flagpoles and maybe a swing set,” Zelenka said. “Won't that be nice?”

Olive's Neighborhood Garden for the Hungry sits on a piece of IDOT land near the Kennedy Expressway in Jefferson Park. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

Growing The Garden

Olive's Garden began as an ambitious Eagle Scout project.

Then-17-year-old Seth Brecklin, a member of Boy Scouts Troop 840, started the garden on a small parcel of Illinois Department of Transportation land at 5200 W. Ainslie St. When he went away to college, his dad, Andy Brecklin, took over.

Zelenka, who knew the Brecklins because he was a Boy Scouts troop leader, said state officials showed up after the garden had been operating for a few years.

“The Boy Scouts would tend to beg for forgiveness instead of ask for permission,” Zelenka said with a smile.

The state established a lease with NeighborSpace land trust, the organization under which Olive's Garden still operates. Over the years, scout troops, neighborhood organizations, churches and local schools have volunteered countless hours on the land and helped expand it, adding a little free library, a non-perishable pantry, beehives and more.

Zelenka, a retired mechanist, took over from Andy Brecklin about five years ago.

Italian honey bees buzz around the hives at Olive's Garden in Jefferson Park. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

Initially called the Garden for the Hungry, the spot was renamed for Olive Borgardt, a woman who lived across the street and would let gardeners use her water.

Olive's donates produce to the food pantries at Northwest Church of Christ and St. Tarcissus Catholic Church every week. The garden also harvests and bottles its own “Highway Honey,” which is donated.

For the past seven years, Zelenka has had his eye on another plot of state-owned land: a patch of fenced-off green space at 5131 W. Gunnison St.

Zelenka, who lives across the street, said the empty land was a dumping ground. Olive's Garden got approval to start working on the park this year.

Since April, Zelenka has been busy cutting the waste-deep grass, removing all the garbage and planting trees, he said. Metra donated two benches to the project, and one of Zelenka's friends made a wooden sign dubbing the parcel the “Lil Bee Havin' Park.”

Neighbors Matthew Peterson and his wife bought 20 Norwegian blue spruce trees from the Arbor Day Foundation and donated them to the park, where they were planted along the edge of the land. In 20 years, the spruces will provide a buffer between neighbors and the highway, Zelenka said.

“There’s a sense of investment in the park from a lot of the community members,” Peterson said.

Dawn Wiley, the teacher sponsor for Beaubien Elementary School's garden club, show's off the school's wildflowers. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

Neighbors have always been at the heart of Olive's Garden, Zelenka said.

All are invited to stop by and help harvest on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and the garden has a small patch of herbs out front with plastic bags and scissors so neighbors can grab a pinch of thyme whenever they want.

“People always ask, ‘how come you never have anybody mess with the garden?' I tell them, ‘Because I have every kid in the neighborhood out here pulling weeds,'” Zelenka said.

Zelenka wants to expand neighborhood involvement by creating a partnership with nearby Beaubien Elementary School.

Zelenka submitted a proposal for a hands-on education program to the school last spring. He started coming to the school's garden club in the fall, and students have visited Olive's for a field trip.

Beaubien's garden club, which has operated for about eight years, teaches students how to grow fruits, veggies, herbs and wildflowers using container gardens behind the school's playground.

Dawn Wiley, the garden club's teacher sponsor, said partnering with Olive's Garden has shown students “what they’re doing here has a community application; it can affect people’s lives.”

Bill Zelenka walks through Olive's Neighborhood Garden for the Hungry. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

Zelenka also wants to start livestreaming the garden's beehives so Beaubien students can observe them in class. His goal is to get more neighborhood kids outside and in the soil.

“You never know: They might get that green thumb in the ground and say, ‘I want to be a farmer,’” Zelenka said. “The garden is a beautiful place to meet your neighbors.”

For more information about the garden, check out Olive's Facebook page.

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