Bellevue nonprofit's project helps land, youths blossom

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Youths involved in a Bellevue area community outreach program have transformed an unused, grassy area behind Allegheny General Hospital — Suburban Campus into a garden.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield awarded a $3,500 grant to The Drop, a ministry for middle- and high-schoolers who might believe their futures are limited, said Matt Harding, executive director of the nonprofit Shepherd's Door in Bellevue, which runs the ministry.

“Through The Drop, we teach these kids values such as hope and possibility,” Harding said. “We provide them with a safe place they can come to play, create and explore.”

Harding said Kathy Ferri, community relations manager for Allegheny Health Network, helped start the project.

Ferri said she recalls telling a coworker that a field behind the Suburban building could become a garden.

“Not even two months later, I was contacted by Matt at Shepherd's Door, who asked if we would consider giving their organization the plot of land,” she said.

She loved the idea, but money was lacking.

Ferri suggested that Harding apply for a Highmark grant.

Mary Anne Papale, director of community affairs at Highmark Inc., said the insurer was excited about the project. ”The garden was built and will be tended by kids in The Drop,” she said.

So far this summer, about 20 youths in The Drop, with Harding's supervision, have planted two beds containing herbs and vegetables. The other two will sprout fall crops.

Grant money has paid for fertilizer, planting boxes and other materials, and some remains unspent.

Harding and Ferri plan to add fruit, flowers, a gazebo and benches, turning the garden into a relaxing setting for the youths, AGH patients and their families and community members.

Ferri said the project “will allow us to expand our health and wellness program, and kids involved at The Drop will be able to learn about nutrition through what they've grown.”

Vegetables from the garden will be used in cooking classes run by the health network and The Drop.

Papale said she hopes the experience will inspire some youths to choose careers in health care.

Chasity Capasso is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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