Growing Communities

Silent Heroes motivated to improve the region

Aunt Katie’s Community Garden Executive Director Michael Jackson overlooks the plants growing in a tunnel house at the garden.

Michael Jackson and Kim Curenton have revitalized their communities by repurposing older properties, and both were recently recognized for their efforts with Silent Heroes of the Wiregrass honors.

Jackson and Curenton garnered the January and February awards, respectively, from WTVY News 4 and Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) and earned a $1,000 gift from WEC’s Operation Round Up Charitable Foundation. Jackson serves as the director of Aunt Katie’s Community Garden in Dothan, while Curenton is the director of the Johnny Hughes Community Center in Hartford.

“Both of these facilities, under the direction of great leadership, have contributed immense value to their communities,” says WEC’s Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “Michael Jackson and Kim Curenton both have tremendous passion for bettering their communities and helping their neighbors. We are honored to recognize their efforts.”

“Every now and then you need a pat on the back,” Jackson says of the honor. “You need to hear that someone thinks you are making a difference, reinforcing that you make a difference. I appreciate that.”

Raising Awareness & Economies

Jackson’s foray into farming in Dothan’s inner-city area began in 2010. An advocate for curbing childhood obesity, he decided to launch a grassroots effort to educate children on proper eating habits.

Students from Ridgecrest Christian School in Dothan clean up an onion garden at Aunt Katie’s Community Garden.

To supplement his knowledge, he took a 13-week Master Gardener course. Meanwhile, he asked his aunt if he could use some property she owned at the corner of Linden and Chickasaw streets for the garden. She agreed, and Aunt Katie’s Community Garden was born.

What initially began as an educational effort turned into so much more in the decade following. It has become an economic force in one of Dothan’s older, lower-income neighborhoods.

Jackson was able to purchase a few other lots in an effort to expand the garden. The property now has one tunnel house — essentially a greenhouse that doesn’t use glass — that allows gardening year-round. The garden even has a few beehives.

People have been able to purchase raised beds at the garden and grow their own fruits and vegetables, which they sometimes sell for profit. That seed of entrepreneurship can inspire hope and growth in poorer neighborhoods.

“We need more businesses buying from each other,” Jackson says. Restaurants and other businesses have bought produce from growers at Aunt Katie’s, investing money and energy into a low-income neighborhood.

WTVY News 4 anchor Reginald Jones, left, and Wiregrass Electric Cooperative Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro, right, prepare to present Michael Jackson a check for $1,000 as part of his Silent Heroes of the Wiregrass award.

The garden has shown such promise that it landed Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Program grants, which specifically help turn older properties with potential environmental hazards into economic development engines.

The grants are allowing the City of Dothan to remediate a lot adjacent to the garden that contains low levels of arsenic. Once remediation is complete this year, Jackson plans to build three more tunnel houses — each capable of producing the same amount of fruit and vegetables as 1 acre of land in a single growing cycle.

“The garden is the economic engine. It’s the way currency can be exchanged,” Jackson says. “Every dollar that I can capture in my community turns into $6. Through the money I pay to somebody part time, they take that same money and they buy groceries — something back from me. Or a restaurant buys their lettuce from me. That multiplicity of economics is what tends to happen for community development.”

Improving Quality of Life

About two decades ago, Hartford town leaders faced a dilemma: What could they do with the former Geneva County Middle School building?

On one hand, they could tear the century-old facility down, since the school had moved to another campus just blocks away. On the other, they could use it to benefit the central Geneva County community in a multitude of ways.

The Johnny Hughes Community Center plays an integral role in the Hartford community.

They opted for the latter, and the Johnny Hughes Community Center was born. Though she wasn’t the first director, Curenton has run the place for 16 years and witnessed its growth into an important cog of Hartford life.

“We rent our auditorium for different events. We’ve had some weddings. We do family reunions, class reunions, all school events,” she says. “We have our city museum there. People have donated stuff, and now we have some volunteers that keep it open certain days of the week.”

In addition, the center serves as a meeting place and office space for several community organizations. For instance, one program there offers General Educational Development diploma classes, while the Southeast Alabama Community Action Program, more commonly known as SEA CAP, is the newest tenant at Johnny Hughes.

Johnny Hughes Community Center Director Kim Curenton, center, discusses her job with WTVY News 4 anchor Reginald Jones, left, and WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro.

“This is going to be the big thing — the SEACAP,” Curenton says. “I know they have a food pantry. I know they help with electric bills if you qualify. There are a lot of different things that they do. I want to be really involved with that, help them keep their food bank up.”

All of the programs and events at the not-for-profit center are meant to help preserve a historical building and foster a greater sense of community in Hartford, something that motivates Curenton daily.

“I want to see it grow,” she says. “Everyone wants to see our town grow, but it’s a lot of work. I’m passionate about it.”