By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
Gary Niebrugge is not a gardener.
Just ask him.
When he was a kid, he helped his parents in their garden. But not because he wanted to.
“I told my parents I’d never have a garden,” Gary said. “It was too much work.”
Today, the soon-to-be 55-year-old lives on a 68-acre farm about 10 miles south of Effingham. He and his wife Debbie have three children – Jennifer (Brooks), Kyle and Matthew – and their dog Candy.
And true to his word, there was no garden.
But that was before God came calling.
“God told me I needed to use some of my land for something else. So I started praying about it,” Gary recalled.
“I knew it would be something to do with kids,” he added. “I have a real soft spot for kids. I want to see kids have opportunities like I did when I was growing up.”
But When the vision started to be revealed in August 2015, Gary admitted he rejected it at first.
“I’m not a gardener,” he told God. “But this feeling was so overwhelming, I knew what I was supposed to do.”
Now, a little more than a year later, Gary has established and completed the first season for Krops4Kids.
What is Krops4Kids?
It teaches youth how to plant and grow vegetables . . . in a garden.
“When God calls you to do something, what are you going to say? All I could do was surrender and answer the call,” Gary acknowledged.
When Gary began “bouncing ideas” off people, he received nothing but support. One of the first people he spoke to was Kelsey Weber, who is part of the Blessings in a Backpack organization.
“She told me this was something I had to do and gave me ideas on to how to get started,” Gary noted. “Then I started asking other people to join in. It was mind-boggling how people would stop whatever they were doing to help move this project along.”
Things started coming together quickly. And sometimes unexpectedly.
In November Gary received a call from Joe Jansen, asking if he needed any utility poles. Gary’s initial response was “no.” But after thinking about it, he changed his mind, called Joe back and then picked up between 50-60 poles that were used to construct the garden beds.
Then Butch Bahrns got involved. He used his sawmill to cut the poles into 2x10 and 2x12 strips.
Gary then realized he was going to need stakes to attach to the beds to keep them in place. Jansen just happened to have a truck load of oak boards that he donated. Gary said there were more than enough to make stakes for the 40 beds.
Larry Spilker also played a role. When Hubert and Bunny Smith closed their blueberry patch – Bunny’s Berries -- near Altamont, Larry approached them about their remaining plants. The Smith’s were more than happy to help, and as a result, Gary received 60 blueberry plants that they transplanted.
“Up to this point, there was no money invested,” Gary said. “Everything was a free will donation of time and materials.
“I couldn’t have done this on my own,” Gary added. “Joe, Larry and Butch have been great. Without those three guys, there’s no way I could have pulled this off. God put us together for a reason.”
Starting in February, construction on the garden beds began. By the first part of May, 28 beds were ready for planting. Each was 24 feet long and 4 feet wide.
“There was a lot of hours spent doing all this,” Gary explained. “And these guys were more than willing to help.
With the help of the mentoring program leaders, applications/agreements were given to kids at Effingham Central School and Effingham Junior High.
The target age was fourth through eighth graders. The goal was to have 6 families and 12 kids.
The initial group included 6 families, but 18 kids. Within a short time, however, there was a few that left the program. Gary ended up working with 4 families and 12 kids.
“We wanted to start small and find our way,” Gary explained. “We will continue to analyze and improve the program as we move forward.”
During April and May, the group met twice a week – 6-8 p.m. Monday and 8-10 a.m. Saturday. To participate, the kids were required to attend at least once each week. In June, they started meeting from 9-11 a.m. on Monday and 6-8 p.m. Wednesday. Gary begins each session with prayer.
Gary didn’t know any of the kids or their parents, but that didn’t matter. That “soft spot” he talked about took over, resulting in a bond that simply grew stronger and stronger as the summer months passed.
“Some of the kids didn’t know each other either,” he recalled. “But they developed friendships. They even gave each other nicknames. I never thought about how the kids would bond. It wasn’t on my radar. But it was a terrific thing.”
When the kids arrived in mid-April, they began planting.
“For some, it was the first time they ever used a shovel,” Gary said. “But they dove right in. The very first night, they planted 90 tomato plants in 45 minutes. We showed them how and they went to town. They were excited.”
By the time all the planting was done, there were also potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, carrots, peppers, green beans, okra, sweet corn, watermelon and pumpkins.
The kids also helped build the beds, learn about plumbing and irrigation, and were also responsible for weeding, watering and maintaining the garden beds.
Some things were planted at different times. The blueberries matured in mid-June and gave the group something to work on during that time. The kids got excited when they saw the other plants starting to grow.
“When the potatoes started blooming, we dug one up and showed them,” Gary said. “They saw the growing process right before their eyes. It was part of the fun; part of their excitement.”
It was a group effort.
“This is a one-for-all, all-for-one program,” Gary said.
When it was time to harvest the produce, everything is divided between the participating families. What’s left over is given to extended family members or sold.
“We don’t put a price on anything. We just take free will donations,” Gary explained. “Any money received is donated to one or multiple non-profit groups and the kids get to decide who that’s going to be.”
More Than Growing Vegetables
Krops4Kids is not just about growing produce.
It also teaches life lessons.
“On our logo, it says ‘Learning to Grow’. This is an opportunity for these kids to do something they wouldn’t get to do otherwise,” Gary said. “This program allows for personal development. It’s not a hand out. It’s a hand up. It teaches them to be self-sufficient.
“It also teaches them the true meaning of giving,” he added. “Many kids today don’t understand that.”
It was also time for families.
“I saw parents getting involved as much as the kids,” Gary said. “They got to spend time with their kids in a garden, learning and growing together.”
Gary doesn’t know exactly what to expect in the future, but is ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes.
“I used about a half an acre this year and there’s room for growth,” he said. “I would be willing to use my 10 acres of soybeans if this program grows to that size.
“My five-year goal is see this used as a school program,” Gary added. “We just want to reach as many kids as we can. I’m not worried about ground or finances. God will take care of that.”
The first group of Krops4Kids recently held their Garden Party at Oneighty in Effingham. Gary talked to each of the kids and every single one of them said they would be back next year.
Krops4Kids is a non-profit organization that operates through the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation. It has received several donations from local groups. Thrivent Financial in Altamont is a major donor to the program. There is a website and Facebook page.
“None of what we’re doing is about me or the team,” Gary emphasized. “This is all about the kids. We hope to see the seeds we planted in these kids germinate 20 years down the road. This program gives kids the opportunity to learn and grow.
“The crops are just a by-product. We’re harvesting kids.”