Do you want to see my vegetables?”
Early last summer, a boy was riding along on his bicycle when he saw Ann Thane, the mayor of Amsterdam.
He led Thane into the Community Garden and proudly showed her leafy bumps of carrots peeking out of the soil and tiny green tomatoes.
“He was so excited,” Thane recalls.
This summer, for a second season, the Community Garden is coming to life in a tough neighborhood in the city’s East End.
By last week, the parsley and peas had sprouted several inches, and strawberry plants were stretching their vines in the 40-by-70-inch plot.
The Community Garden grows behind the Creative Connections Arts Center, which opened almost two years ago in an old church on busy East Main Street.
Operated by the city’s Recreation Department, Creative Connections offers classes and activities for children and adults. They are run by volunteers with donated supplies. The two-story city-owned building has also become a community gathering place.
Wishful Thinking, a not-for-profit organization that provides youth activities, has started a Homework Club, the Amsterdam Garden Club helps with the 4-H Club that tends the garden and Creative Connections, a community arts group, provides art lessons and arts activities. There are Girl Scout meetings, sewing lessons and cooking classes in the center’s kitchen.
“This has really been a grassroots effort,” says Thane. “It’s really kind of evolved into an arts and community center.”
“Sometimes there’s a small charge for classes, sometimes they are free,” says Samantha Bonanno, assistant to Recreation Department director Rob Spagnola.
Amsterdam mayor Ann Thane, on right, and volunteer Dani Whelly, on left, help children make tiles for the mosaic wall in August 2013.
“This summer, there will be acting, art and dance for youth and adults,” Bonanno says.
Classes begin Monday, July 7 and run through August, and a free summer lunch program is planned.
While Creative Connections has no sign, the outdoor artwork in front of the building is eye-catching.
Creative Connections Arts Center
WHERE: 303 East Main St., Amsterdam
MORE INFO: www.amsterdamrecreation.com, creative connections on Facebook or www.wishfulthinkingfoundation.com. For summer classes, call Samantha Bonanno at 841-4369 or send email to email@example.com.
Last August, 40 kids created the 30-foot-long mosaic, imbedding a concrete wall with cobalt blue pottery shards, hand imprints and shimmering mirror fragments.
And on the street next to the church, a colorful abstract mural was painted on the side of another building.
On a recent afternoon, 13-year-old Devin is sitting next to the blue mosaic wall, waiting for a friend to arrive for Homework Club.
“I like it,” the teen says. “It’s quiet, but after you do your work, you can talk. I can just hang out.”
Wishful Thinking launched the Homework Club in February and has kept it going three nights a week.
“Tuesday is crazy, we get 30 to 40 kids,” says Matt Moller, a Wishful Thinking volunteer.
“A lot of kids in our area don’t have a computer or the right setting at home to do homework. Some of the kids use it as a safe haven.”
The Homework Club room, which was remodeled by the students, has a piano, a couch and an affirmation board where kids post their hopes and dreams.
The students, in grade six through high school, do their schoolwork with donated computers. Fifteen adult volunteers and 10 older students act as tutors and mentors.
Response to killing
Wishful Thinking, also known as W1shful Th1nk1ng, was founded in 2012 by four young men in Amsterdam after 16-year-old Paul Damphier and 13-year-old Jonathan Dejesus were shot to death in the city.
On April 26, Wishful Thinking organized a citywide cleanup day, with Creative Connections as its headquarters. Seventy-five kids, wearing green T-shirts, and 30 adults participated.
“We did the whole Main Street,” Moller says.
Less than a month later, on May 17, 200 people attended a free community cookout sponsored by Wishful Thinking and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
About 1,000 people, children and families, crowded into Creative Connections on May 15 for the 21st annual Amsterdam High School Art Exhibit.
“It was just an ideal space to have it,” says Michele Van Wormer, one of the art teachers that runs the show.
Eight hundred student artworks were exhibited in a large second floor room, where sunlight filters through stained-glass windows.
“The community coming in was very impressed. It’s a space that was needed in the community,” says Van Wormer.
The mayor envisioned the arts center the first time she walked through the building, a former clinic run by St. Mary’s Healthcare.
For some kids, athletics is a way for them to become part of the community, she says.
“Other kids learn in other ways, through the arts.”
For a short time, the center was run by the group called Creative Connections, and then the city stepped in.
Thane, who majored in art at the University of Delaware and is the former director of the Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam, continues to play an active role in the new arts center.
“It’s part of my mission as mayor,” she says. “Last summer, I was here every day, cooking and painting. The mural is my baby.”
Funding the arts center is a challenge because the city cannot do fund-raising. A private, non-profit group could take it over and apply for grants, but for now, the art center’s future is unclear.
“It’s evolving,” says Thane.
Her goal is to have a professional staff and an building that is open daily.
But she’s happy with what’s happened since the doors opened in September 2012.
“These kids would never have a space like this, safe and drug-free,” Thane says.
“It’s a family here.”
Behind the building, the Community Garden and its 4-H Club is run by Barbara Neznek, a clinical herbalist and Cornell Cooperative Extension master gardener who lives on a farm in the town of Florida.
Last summer, 70 children planted, weeded, picked and ate strawberries and vegetables. “It empowers the kids,” Neznek says.
One of her young gardeners, Dianelit Vasquez Ortiz, was even honored with a state award.
Dianelit went door-to-door in the neighborhood with Neznek, translating English to Spanish, as they told the neighborhood about the Community Garden and invited people to participate.
This spring, the sophomore at Amsterdam High School was named a 2014 Rising Latino Star by the Hispanic Coalition NY Inc.
She was the youngest person to receive the award, which recognizes accomplishments by members of the Hispanic/Latino community under age 40.
“We couldn’t have done this without her,” Neznek says, standing next to Dianelit in this year’s garden.
“She was here all last summer, weeding and working in the garden.”
When asked about the garden, Dianelit just smiles.
“It’s fun,” she says. “It’s fun for kids.”
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.