Members of Barrington United Methodist Church have supported the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville for years, but this summer they have ramped up their donations with fresh vegetables.
Earlier this summer they carved out a giving garden in a portion of the empty fields that adjoin their property and just last week they reaped their first harvest: yellow squash and jalapeño peppers.
"This is our first year and we're sort of flying by the seat of our pants," says the co-director of the missions and outreach committee, Pete Wesley of North Barrington. "It's like a buffet: Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and we planted almost more than we could handle."
While one row of their beans did not fare well, they have learned from their mistakes and the rest of their crops are doing well.
Del Haagen of Schaumburg, one of the church's trustees, suggested the idea after seeing a similar giving garden project at a church near his home.
"We had this vacant land," Haagen says. "I thought if we could get a garden going, it would be in line with our emphasis on supporting the food bank."
Their first challenge was converting the land from field to garden, before constructing a wire fence high enough to keep away the deer. Then they worked to figure out a method to water the plot, which became increasingly important as the summer progressed.
Wesley admits when they got around to planting it was somewhat late, and the heavy rains in June set them back. But with plenty of sunshine and hot weather in July, they have begun to reap the benefits of their labors.
In the coming weeks they expect to start harvesting tomatoes from their 65 plants, as well as the variety of peppers, zucchini carrots, onions, cucumber and cauliflower that are flourishing.
They haven't stopped there. Later this month, they plan to plant some cool weather plants, including lettuce and celery.
"The people at the food pantry said to stick with the basics, but that they'd welcome anything," says Wesley, a retired salesman for a water treatment and process chemical company.
Working with Wesley and the other church members is Lou Schairer of Fox River Grove, a retired horticulture teacher who is providing some of the know-how behind the ambitious project.
But plenty of church members have stepped forward to help weed and tend the garden.
"We've had tremendous support from the congregation," Wesley adds, pointing to even the youngsters attending vacation Bible camp that rolled up their sleeves to help garden and learn about growing vegetables for families in need.
They also have partnered with their sister congregation in Carpentersville, Bethel United Methodist Church, whose members have come out to work in the garden.
Their joint efforts are going to support the FISH Food Pantry, which is an acronym for Friend, I Shall Help. It serves 400 families a month, officials say, including needy families living in Dundee Township and those identified through Community Unit District 300.
"Summer is a really wonderful time here because of all our gardeners who donate their fresh produce," says Marilyn Mack of East Dundee, food pantry president. "We don't ever purchase produce, so we rely completely on what is donated. But our clients love it."
Barrington United Methodist Associate Pastor Cynthia Anderson says the garden project has drawn a variety of members to roll up their sleeves and help.
"We've been committed to helping this food pantry for years, but the garden has been a great community builder for us as well," Anderson said.
Wesley often leads volunteers early in the morning, when they come out to water, weed and harvest, as many as three times a week.
"For me, it's almost a selfish thing," he concedes. "I get so much out of it, that it's almost therapy for me."