Southeast Missouri man spreads fruits of his labor

Saturday, July 11, 2009 | 3:18 p.m. CDT; updated 5:27 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 11, 2009

CAPE GIRARDEAU — Robert Harris keeps a journal full of dreams. Some of them have already been realized.

"You just have so many dreams, and you just hope that one day you can pull them off," he said.

Harris, 55, is a bus driver for the Cape Girardeau School District, but during the summer he volunteers at two community gardens. He helped create the Cape Girardeau Community Garden Project six years ago, beginning with a plot of land off South Fountain Street. Three years later he took over the Red Star Baptist Church garden on North Main Street, and it was incorporated into the project.

Harris takes the produce he grows in the gardens to senior citizens or people with health conditions who are unable to leave their homes. He leaves some fruits and vegetables, including squash, tomatoes and green beans, in small bins next to the gardens for anyone in the community who needs them.

Harris spends about 10 hours in the gardens each day and is allied with several organizations to grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables. The community gardens are supplied with plants from the greenhouse at the Cape Girardeau County Juvenile Detention Center. Harris has worked with juvenile referrals from the 32nd Judicial Circuit and young people from the Division of Youth Services' Echo Program, Boy Scout Troop 215 and ROPE 4-H Club.

"Without them, I couldn't do it," he said.

Randy Rhodes, juvenile officer for the 32nd Judicial Circuit, said Harris is skilled at organizing groups working in the gardens.

"He's a jewel for the community, that's for sure," Rhodes said.

Harris became a Master Gardener shortly before the creation of the Community Garden Project but has been gardening since he was a child. He said that, though he did not realize it until he was older, he feels called to do the work.

"You know how when you feel you have a calling and you don't like to see people suffer or do without, so you're just simply doing what you have a gift to do," Harris said.

Harris' dreams extend beyond the two gardens in Cape Girardeau. He proposed the construction of a playground next to the Main Street garden, and the Parks and Recreation Department built one in the spring.

His journal includes ideas for gardens in other cities and plans for a plot in Cape Girardeau where families can grow vegetables. He said he eventually hopes to found a not-for-profit organization.

Although Harris has recovered from a cancer that forced him to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments a year ago, he is aware he will not be able to volunteer forever. He said his journal can be used as a road map for someone else looking to continue his work.

But he did not mention plans to slow down and said his battle with cancer has made him more appreciative of what he does.

"You realize that it's a gift to be alive," Harris said.


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