Growing  a community

Outside the One Stop Homeless Services Center at the corner of North 17th and Convention streets, there’s a garden where cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, beans and more are growing.

People in the neighborhood can pick the food if they want it; homeless clients who live in one of the center’s efficiency apartments can use it; and vegetables are also taken across the street to the kitchen of St. Vincent de Paul, which prepares lunch daily for the homeless.

But there’s something else the One Stop Community Garden has done.

“I think the biggest thing about the garden isn’t necessarily the vegetables,” said Mora Hedayati, who had the vision for the garden.

“It builds community,” said Hedayati, who is a member of the Louisiana Delta Service Corps.

The corps is a branch of AmeriCorps, a federal program that engages people in service at nonprofits, schools and community groups.

“With the community and clients here, it builds friendship and trust,” Hedayati said.

In September 2012, Hedayati began her service at the One Stop center, and her work there will end in July.

But it’s likely that the garden will remain for a long time to come.

Hedayati started it with help and donations from volunteers, church and school groups, homeless clients and Slow Food Baton Rouge, a group that promotes food that is “good, clean and fair.”

The garden is situated next to the One Stop center, on leased property that used to serve as an informal, communal trash dump for the area.

But not anymore.

“Now that it’s a beautiful space, people value it and they respect it,” Hedayati said.

The One Stop Homeless Services Center opened in November 2011, through the efforts of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless.

The alliance is made up of 35 nonprofit agencies with the goal of ending homelessness.

At the One Stop center, the homeless can use the services of a “drop-in” area, operated by Volunteers of America, where they can do laundry, take a shower, use the phone and computer, and get mail.

Homeless clients of the One Stop center also have access to a physician at the site, legal services, and the UpLIFTD program that helps people with disabilities find jobs.

Homeless clients can also reap the benefits of several volunteer-run programs of the center: yoga, art and creative writing classes, Bible studies and a new “story circle,” a regular gathering in which people can share their stories if they care to.

It’s the volunteer portion that became Hedayati’s baby, so to speak, when she came on board the One Stop center as “kind of a living grant” from the AmeriCorps program. Two other AmeriCorps members also work at the center in other areas.

“She has made it possible for us to use the talents of volunteers through recruiting, training and supporting the work the volunteers do,” said Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Association for the Homeless.

Hedayati’s official title is volunteer coordinator and her job has been to build a base of volunteers, which now number close to 200 regulars from the community, she said.

Along the way, she helped establish a computer lab, set up by a computer-professional volunteer and run by volunteers, that trains homeless clients in the basic use of computers

And, then, there’s the garden that is growing and thriving with regular garden work days for volunteers and One Stop center clients.

Hedayati noticed recently that someone had staked the tomato plants in the garden, but she wasn’t sure whom to thank.

It turns out it was One Stop client Brian DeVold.

“These people help me out, so I don’t mind helping them out. That’s the way I give back,” DeVold said of his work in the garden.

“It gives me a sense of serenity,” he added.

Hedayati and her husband, Riaz Hedayati, who works in economic research in LSU’s Division of Economic Development, are both natives of Arizona and graduates of the University of Arizona.

Riaz Hedayati moved to Baton Rouge in August 2011 to begin his work at LSU. The couple married in Arizona in January 2012.

After Mora Hedayati, who holds a double major in Spanish and studio art, joined her husband in Baton Rouge, she began looking into the possibility of joining the Louisiana Delta Service Corps.

“It’s good for people to know you can work in the city where you live,” Hedayati said of the community-service organization.

In the future, she and her husband may be returning to the West Coast to be closer to their families.

Mora Hedayati had worked with the homeless in Tucson as part of her college education and found the One Stop center here a place to use her experience and talents — and to learn.

“I learned that before I could bring volunteers in, you have to have programs for them to volunteer in,” she said, with a soft laugh.

Developing programs and a volunteer cadre at a service center such as the One Stop “takes a lot of creativity, which I have, and confidence, which I think I’m gaining,” said Hedayati, 25.

“She just has the biggest heart,” said Collette Desselles, the housing case manager for the Volunteers of America, which has offices at the center.

“Before she comes in, the clients are asking, ‘Is Miss Mora here? Is Miss Mora here?’” Desselles said.

“She’s just a really grounded and compassionate young woman,” said the Rev. Susie Thomas, an associate pastor of First United Methodist Church.

Thomas guides the new story circle at the One Stop center; the setting for people to talk about their lives was a vision of Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless executive director Nichols.

“It seems like sometimes homeless people have convoluted stories, and no one to tell them to,” Thomas said.

When Hedayati first saw the empty, grassy lot next to the One Stop, she knew it was something she’d like to transform.

In the fall of 2012, members of a church youth group and homeless volunteers helped clear out trash.

Next, other volunteers mowed, “weedwhacked” and sawed down trees.

With donations of wood from Slow Food and the help of other volunteers, raised garden beds were built.

The first harvest of the garden included collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage and Swiss chard.

The garden is a pretty sight. Hedayati kept some of the old tires that had been on the property and she and volunteers painted them brilliant colors and arranged the tires as a garden tier to hold flowers.

“I fell in love with that garden,” said One Stop client DeVold, who grew up with a garden in his family’s backyard.

DeVold, who’s a cook by trade, said he has a vision for a recreation area on the property outside the garden, a green area with a deck, barbecue pit and picnic area for the center’s clients.

Hedayati said that one of her favorite things about getting a volunteer program started “has been changing perceptions.

“When I give presentations in the community about the One Stop, people ask really good questions,” Hedayati said. “They learn that homelessness is not a choice. When volunteers work side-by-side with people here, they create relationships and see that we’re all much more similar than we are different.”