By Linda Alice Dewey
[BucketsofRain] Singer-songwriter Chris Skellenger, a longtime entertainer at local watering holes, recently posted this news flash on Facebook about his nonprofit. “I just heard that starting tomorrow, Buckets of Rain is working on an urban garden with a free Muslim health clinic in the heart of one of the most destroyed parts of Detroit, a predominantly African-American community. We’re all in this together, brothers in arms.” The announcement referred to a new partnership between Buckets of Rain (BoR) and the Muslim-owned and operated HUDA Clinic. BoR will run the clinic’s urban garden, located near the BoR garden in Detroit’s Highland Park, solving problems for both outfits: BoR had run out of garden space, and HUDA needed gardening expertise.
Skellenger organized Buckets of Rain in 2006. “We promote food security for the inner city of Detroit by growing vegetables for the homeless shelter kitchens and for the Detroit Rescue Mission,” said the singer-songwriter. “We also give about half of what we grow to the people that live in the neighborhoods where we grow.”
According to the 2010 census, Highland Park is 93.5 percent African American and 3.2 percent white, and includes the largest percentage of single adults of any city in Michigan at 87 percent. In its heyday, the city was home to Chrysler Corporation, but in the mid-1990s Chrysler moved to Auburn Hills. By 2001, the city was in the hands of a financial manager.
In 2013, Skellenger began transforming a large vacant Highland Park parking lot across the street from the Detroit Rescue Mission, a shelter for homeless men, into an urban garden. Describing the area, he says, “The unemployment rate is about 70 percent. There are 29 abandoned and collapsing houses on the two blocks that are adjacent to our garden.”
At the same time, a group of Muslim medical professionals at the HUDA Health Unit on Davison Avenue began a similar project on a vacant lot next to the clinic, which is about two and a half blocks away from Skellenger’s garden. The clinic had evolved from a group of doctors that belonged to a mosque located on the corner there 10 years before. “We began seeing patients who were underinsured or who had no insurance,” says Babar Qadri (phonetically pronounced KAH-dree), HUDA’s educational advisor and attending physician. Its doctors and medical students raise funds privately to support the clinic, which serves 40-50 patients without charge each week—all locals.
[ChrisSkellenger4] “The doctors at the clinic noticed the need for better nutrition in the patients they were seeing but also noted the lack of resources,” says Qadri. Faced with low funds and few grocery stores in the area, patients resorted to junk food and fast food. Observing the vacant lot next to their clinic, they decided that planting vegetables might alleviate the problem. Having little gardening experience, they searched Pinterest and YouTube, then built raised beds from wooden pallets. When these began to fall apart, they decided to look for better ideas.
“We drove around and saw Chris’s garden,” Qadri says of the BoR site just a few city blocks away. “We told him about the HUDA Clinic and our garden.”
Skellenger, who had a degree in horticulture and had been gardening for 40 years in Leelanau County, had quickly abandoned his own wooden pallet beds for something more durable. He describes what happened next. “They came down to the garden one day. HUDA clinic volunteers are all basically med students, physicians’ assistants and/or doctors. They said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about where we can go with this garden from here. We have lots of volunteers.’ They wanted to tear their garden down and set it up the way Buckets of Rain gardens are set up. They said they had 800 volunteers, and offered to help with [our garden], if I would go and mentor them in the building of theirs…” That was great, because BoR needed volunteers.
The collaboration began slowly. “We included them on our mowing list so they could look neat and tidy from the road; brought them some seedlings,” says Skellenger. Those seedlings, by the way, were started in Karen Richard’s science class at Glen Lake School by a group that calls themselves “Students for World Awareness.”
Then Skellenger began sharing some of BoR’s other assets, such as the General Motors parts bins BoR uses now for its raised garden beds.“We’re able to share the things that are given to us for them, because they asked for it. That’s important for a person if they want help—that they ask for it.
“We put 40 bins in [at HUDA] this fall,” Skellenger continues, “and it’s looking neat and productive. Curb appeal is huge in an urban garden. We don’t want them to see urban gardens that look like blight. A lot of times urban gardens are one step away from blight. They’re going to be looking good from now on.”
Qadri says it’s been “amazing” to work with Skellenger, whose BoR garden produced 100,000 servings this year. For Qadri, helping the local neighborhood through gardening is an opportunity for different ethnic groups to get to know one another through working side by side, and to get kids back in touch with nature while teaching them to grow food as a life skill.
“What’s unique,” says Skellenger, whose quick wit is always at the fore, “is that we have a free health clinic and free vegetables being grown by a Muslim staff in an all-black neighborhood,” he laughs, “with the help of a couple of northern Michiganders.”
Then he adds, “We’re really excited about working with HUDA Clinic…They are a medical clinic and probably know the community’s needs better as far as which [crop] to grow more of, and which less. We have a couple of cancer patients who rely on our kale crop, mainly…to be part of their health treatment…One gentleman has dropped his PSA from 9 to 5, and he attributes that to a smoothie of dinosaur kale and red clover. We [BoR] don’t know anything about that. We grow vegetables. These people that we’re working with [HUDA], they’d know about that. So that’s a huge breakthrough along those lines.”
And racial tension? There isn’t any—at least not any more. “At first,” says Skellenger of his first days in the hood, “I was ‘the white guy,’ because I was the only white person there … and now I’m not the ‘white guy,’” he laughs, “I’m ‘Chris’, and they don’t even think about it.” He says, “You get where you don’t even see it.” Now when he rides his tractor the two and a half blocks from his garden on Glendale over to the clinic, people wave. “Every day is like Christmas,” he exclaims. “There’s always someone who overwhelms you with their gratitude. It’s always unexpected, always unsolicited. It comes from someone on the street. It’s a real buzz, kind of like applause to a musician,” he jokes, poking fun at himself.
Qadri says a new ethnic group will be moving into the neighborhood next summer—Syrian refugees. To house them, Qadri’s organization has bought homes down one side of the street and last summer began refurbishing them with the help of local youths who learn as they go.
Obviously, Skellenger doesn’t share the fear some now feel toward Muslims, but why? “We were brought together by gardening, which happened in the middle of all of this bad press,” he answers. “People that need help and the people helping them have a nice synergy going on here, and all those other boundaries disappear.”
“People in the nonprofit world [in Detroit] work with blinders on—you really have to,” says Skellenger. “Nothing makes you colorblind faster than being able to provide help for other people.”
Chris Skellenger plays music regularly in the Glen Arbor area. Find him harmonizing with other northern Michigan musicians at venues like Boonedocks in the summer and on special holidays, at Art’s on St. Patrick’s Day, and at Little Traverse Inn any time of year. You can help Buckets of Rain by donating online at www.bucketsofrain.org.
Linda Alice Dewey, author of Aaron’s Crossing and The Ghost Who Would Not Die, has been known to pull a weed or two at the BoR garden on Glendale in Highland Park.