The Kiwanis Club of Topsail Island Area’s community garden shows the power of partnership.

By Erin Chandler 

This year the Kiwanis Club of Topsail Island Area, Surf City in North Carolina, U.S., will mark Celebrate Community week by coming together for a workday in their new community garden — one that truly lives up to the name. 

Once it is finished, the Greater Topsail Area Community Garden will play a significant part in alleviating local food insecurity. It has already forged partnerships and brought people closer together — and it all began at the 2022 Kiwanis International Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.  

Former Club Secretary Cathi Litcher, who now serves as garden coordinator, says she was walking down the street with Treasurer Kimberly Patrizi and then-President Nicki Swafford when Swafford casually suggested starting a community garden for Share the Table, a local organization whose motto is “neighbors feeding neighbors.” 

“Kimberly and I looked at each other and responded, ‘Sure,’” Litcher says. As it happened, she and her husband had some land they could donate to the project. From there, the garden idea “just blossomed.” 

Still walking along the streets of Indianapolis, Swafford called Dawn Ellis, founder and executive director of Share the Table, who immediately got on board. The Kiwanis club already supported Share the Table’s program to send backpacks of food home with Pender County Schools students on weekends, so she knew the club shared her commitment to helping the hungry. Share the Table was in the process of building a learning kitchen, where families — including children — will learn how to cook nutritious foods and sit down to eat together, so a nearby source of free, fresh produce was too good an opportunity to pass up. 

Next, the club contacted Siobhan Fargo, career and technical education coordinator for Topsail High School. Fargo not only connected them with interns to help with project management and social media, but with a host of other groups who would be willing to help: the horticulture students and Future Farmers of America could help plan and plant the garden; the woodworking class could build the raised beds, picnic table and bench; and the National Honors Society students could join the Key Club in volunteering to work in the garden. 

Swafford and her team also did not hesitate to involve the Surf City Rotary Club. Topsail Island is a small community with only a few permanent residents, many of them retirees. Knowing that nonprofit and service organizations would otherwise compete for limited sponsorships and publicity resources, area nonprofit leaders have opted to band together. The Rotary Club stepped in at once to donate the lumber for the raised beds. They also organized the first workday to clear the garden perimeter. 

“We thought we may have five to 10 people show up from our respective clubs,” Surf City Rotary Club President Debra Sasser says of the rainy Earth Day gathering, “but after both clubs sent out announcements, we had 41 volunteers show up from the community!” 

That spirit of community collaboration only increased as the project developed. Not only did it receive a club grant from the Kiwanis Children’s Fund, local businesses and organizations have stepped in to help. According to Litcher, every time she has reached out to a potential partner, the response has been, “We want to be involved. What can we do?” Even small businesses, once they find out what their fencing or mulch will be used for, have thrown in additional supplies, given discounts and not charged for delivery.  

“Every time I turn around, somebody else is offering something,” Litcher says. Before she knew it, people were reaching out to her to offer support — including the nearby Hampstead Lions Club. 

For Sasser, the benefit of the Rotary Club’s collaboration with Kiwanis is clear: “Awareness and unity!” Working together, the two organizations bring more attention to food insecurity in the area and bring the community together to help address it. “I think it goes without saying that, ultimately, we hope this project will bring an end to food insecurity in our community.”  

Litcher, too, sees advantages to tackling the community garden project in collaboration with other organizations rather than as a Kiwanis club alone. “Instead of having [only] one or two people to call, once you get to know your partners, … they can give you an idea about where to go, or they’ll find somebody, and it actually expands exponentially the amount of networking you have to find people who want to help and have this servant leadership heart … and then, the next thing you know, things are getting done. I mean, it’s amazing!” she enthuses. “Now I’m finding all these people that love to dig in the dirt with me — and, like, how fun is that?!” 

Among those people are the student volunteers, whose contributions are not just welcomed, but encouraged. Plans for the completed garden include birdhouses built by elementary and middle school students that will draw birds to the garden to help deter pests.  

Local teenagers are already getting involved. On his second day of volunteering, one high school student informed Litcher that he raises and propagates carnivorous plants, and he would like to use a corner of the garden as a bog where people can learn about how his plants help control the insect population. A student attending college in Raleigh wants to put together programs virtually and on his vacations from school. 

Shane McEwan says that serving as an intern on the project while he was a student at Topsail High School was “so awesome! I felt so much purpose in being able to help the community.”  

Current social media intern Juliet Timmons agrees, saying that the experience “has been the highlight of my high school career! Kiwanis has given me the opportunity to grow as a student, leader and worker.” 

The Topsail Island Area Kiwanians recognize that listening to these students, taking them seriously and creating leadership opportunities not only enhances the good the project can do, but also increases the garden’s longevity as a community investment.  

Plans are in place to involve community members in making decisions about the garden’s future operation. The club sees the garden growing into a place where neighbors help feed neighbors, where families can learn about native plants and more in educational spaces, and where fruit trees will be planted in honor of Kiwanis club members who pass away — so that the club can continue to give to the community in their honor. 

Litcher has seen students of different ages and from different social groups getting along as they work together in the garden, and she hopes this serves as a model for how the community will engage with this new resource.  

“I really, really hope that not only will it bring nonprofits together. I hope that it brings the students, the families, the retired folks—we really want to see it be a space where all generations can come together and almost relearn how to be involved and be with each other,” Litcher says 

Dawn Ellis of Share the Table agrees: “I think it’s going to do more than bring food to our community. It’s going to do so much for different types of people working together in that garden. It’s going to replenish people’s hearts and plates.” 

About Celebrate Community
Every year, Kiwanis International takes part in Celebrate Community — a weeklong initiative that promotes collaboration between Kiwanis International, Lions Clubs International, Optimist International and Rotary International.   

In 2023, Celebrate Community is September 11-17. Service projects can focus on the environment, food insecurity and hunger, health and wellness, and education and literacy. 

Learn more so your club can participate in Celebrate Community now or in the future.