It’s early on a Wednesday morning and Connie Derman is smiling as she tucks tiny broccoli seeds into soil-filled pots. Once sprouts appear, she will gently plant them in the ground. For the past 10 years the enthusiastic retiree has been volunteering at Shining Light Garden, literally digging in to help feed those who are homeless, hungry, and forgotten.
Derman isn’t alone. Year-round, she and others—young, old, and in between—give of their time and energy to weed, water, fertilize, and harvest vegetables and fruits growing throughout the garden’s 20 acres on 49th Street west of 66th Avenue. When picked, washed, and boxed, the produce will be distributed to local food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other assistance programs throughout Indian River County.
The not-for-profit organization is funded solely by donations, grants, and generous hearts, and it’s all thanks to a man named Joel Bray, who one day surveyed his backyard and decided it would be the perfect place to grow a few vegetables. A little lettuce and squash here, okra and sweet potatoes there; that was it—small and simple.
“I planted some seeds and had more food than I needed, so I took what was left over around to seniors I knew,” says Bray, as he recalls how the garden took root and began to flourish 15 years ago.
“I had 2 acres, then someone gave me a few more, and before I knew it there were 20.
I never would have imagined the garden would grow into what it is today. Our focus is strictly on growing and giving for God’s glory. It seems like every few years God wants us to add to the farm, like planting avocado and mango trees, and we started growing miracle fruit for cancer patients [it is thought to help with taste changes caused by chemotherapy]. He always finds a way for us to do what he wants done.”
Since Bray planted those first seeds, his deep faith and passion for farming have grown thousands of bushels of food to help feed the hungry, thanks to hundreds of volunteers who show up six days a week to tackle whatever tasks need to be done. And there’s plenty to tackle.
While Bray takes care of the agricultural side of the operation, Greg Vafiades is community liaison, and he, like Bray, is grateful for the generous support the nonprofit has received. “People have just been great to us. Organizations have helped us buy farm equipment, seeds, plants, fuel, and other things we need to keep the garden growing. Volunteers are the backbone of the organization; they have huge hearts to help people in need.”
Diane Titherington is a perfect example. After retiring from Rock City Gardens, she took time off to ponder where her personal path would take her. When she learned that the garden also grows flowers that brighten the lives of VNA Hospice House patients and nursing home residents, her ears perked up and she found herself behind the wheel driving west.
“I went out to tell Joel I wanted to volunteer and asked what he wanted me to do. Joel’s focus is growing food, so he had little time to focus on flowers. Then I showed up,” Titherington says, a smile in her voice.
“As time went on I did more and more, to the point that now Joel gives me the catalog for seeds and I pick things out. I’m at the garden three days a week. I usually get there around 8 o’clock and stay until I start getting hungry. There are some days when the weather is perfect and I find myself there until 3 or 4 in the afternoon.”
There are many stories about how Shining Light Garden has touched people’s lives, and they often start with an awareness and desire to help others. When students at Sebastian River High School realized that some of their classmates were going hungry, and even homeless, they decided something needed to be done. Thanks to two mothers, the “Chum Bucket,” which refers to the school’s mascot, a shark, was founded eight years ago. Since then the nonprofit, based at the high school, has provided hundreds of families of at-risk students with fresh produce from Shining Light Garden, along with personal care items.
Other lives have been touched due to a simple request. That’s what happened to Tim Calahan, director of food services at First United Methodist Church, when he received a phone call from Julianne Price, environmental administrator at the Florida Department of Health, six years ago.
“Julianne knew that individuals from our church have donated endless hours and resources to further the work God has blessed Joel Bray with, and she needed someone to deliver fresh vegetables to residents she had built housing for in Gifford through Every Dream Has a Price,” Calahan explains.
“I volunteered, and from the first moment I went to Shining Light Garden I felt blessed to be a small part of what Joel is doing there. His workforce is 100 percent volunteer, and you can feel God’s presence at the farm.
“The lifelong relationships that have formed from my time serving at the garden are truly a blessing. I have two wonderful ladies I see on my deliveries, Gertrude and Margaret; they have become a part of my life and I wouldn’t have my relationship with them without the Shining Light Garden.”
That’s music to Bray’s ears.
“What I realized a long time ago is that it’s more than a garden—it’s the impact you make in people’s lives that makes a difference. Just step out and watch what God will do in your life.
“The garden is my pulpit. When we had no tractors, one appeared; now we have six. God’s certainly given us the equipment to enlarge, and he just keeps sending the people he wants here,” says Bray.
“I believe God has plans to grow this garden bigger. My goal is 100 acres! I don’t want to limit God; the garden exists to glorify him. Basically, we depend on him and he has never let us down.”