It was no April Fools on Saturday, April 1 when the Rainbow Garden of Life and Health on Melrose Avenue was surprised by yet another commitment of funds – $30,000, to be exact.
About 20 members were in attendance when the day began as an official garden reopening for the season, which also served as a mini awards ceremony. A total of three plaques and three certificates of recognition were distributed, with the initial honoree being the financial donor.
First to receive a multi-faceted, glass plaque was City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. “for his outstanding commitment to the South Bronx garden community,” the plaque read. Last July, Salamanca presented the Rainbow Garden with a $415,000 city check for a new irrigation system and equipment. Those in attendance responded with gasps, shocked applause and even some tears, as the garden was originally seeking $10,000 to buy new tools and create a hose system for watering the plant beds.
At the time, volunteers were relegated to filling buckets at the fire hydrant and walking them into the garden which, according to garden secretary Lorean Valentin, took four hours to cover the entire 11,000 square foot space. The irrigation system has yet to break ground, but at Saturday’s opening, Salamanca said that the project should be underway starting this October so as to not interrupt the planting season.
“I feel like you need new floors,” said Salamanca, who announced that $30,000 will be allocated toward that.
Rainbow Garden’s founder Maximino “Maxi” Rivera has been a community advocate for more than 30 years. Among the friends Rivera has met along the way is Hector Soto, whom he met in the ‘70s, “when our hair and beards were black,” Soto joked as he ran his fingers through his silver hair.
Soto was second to receive a plaque on Saturday for his work in turning the garden into a 501(c)(3), making it an official nonprofit. Soto is the Public Policy and Law unit coordinator and assistant professor of Public Policy and Law at Hostos Community College, and has been an educator for more than 45 years. “I’ve worked on organizing and empowering the community and this is just an extension of that,” said Soto of his pro bono work.
Rafael Ocasio-Barreto of ACER-K-T, the Agriculture Collective for Enrichment and Cultivation of Land, was another who won a plaque. The organization is so grassroots it’s in the soil, literally. Founded in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2015, the name ACER-K-T is meant to mimic the Spanish word acercate which means “get close.”
Created to promote community and combat food scarcity, especially in times of disaster, ACER-K-T was brought to the Bronx by Ocasio-Barreto, who grew up in a small town of Puerto Rico and felt the effects of Maria first-hand. “People here thought that [food scarcity] could never happen and then came COVID and I said, ‘I told you so,’’ said Ocasio-Barreto in Spanish.
“Yo no hablo mucho, pero yo peleo/I don’t talk much, but I fight,” Barreto said of his advocacy work to help create food sustainability in urban areas, especially where Puerto Ricans make up a significant part of the population like the South Bronx.
Edwin Sanabria was the first-ever recipient of the Rainbow Garden award for outstanding volunteer service. Sanabria has shown up in “wind, rain, cold and scathing heat – their diligence to consistently support has shown in results of our harvest,” said assistant coordinator Reyhanna Jefferson as she was presenting the certificate.
Next was Ruth Santiago, who in 2022 gave 600 hours of her time in a five-month period after walking by and saying, “Hey, how can I help?” Santiago said she wanted to show her two teenagers the importance of being involved in the community. “I want my kids to say, ‘You know what? I live here, but I also need to pull my weight.’”
Daniel Chervoni, the head gardener at Friends of Brook Park community garden a few blocks away, was recognized for being the one that helped educate Rivera on how to properly run a community garden. Chervoni, who has been at the Brook Park garden since 1999, is passionate about community and health and puts in the work despite his medical condition.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Rainbow Garden served as a food center to the community as well as a place to go and have a mental reprieve from the ongoing global tragedy. Rainbow Garden has become involved with the neighboring school P.S./M.S. 29 and teaches young people the value of gardening and knowing their neighbors.
But the garden doesn’t just grow food and crops. “What Maxi is growing here is justice and community empowerment,” said Soto.