J. Mizael Chavez stands tall in the afternoon sunlight, boots firm in the dirt. Behind him, the garish neon facade of Parx Casino pulses, pulling in gamblers. But here, hundreds of yards away from where dice are rolled and bets are made, Chavez works at the one thing in life he’s sure of.

“This project is my heart,” Chavez, 46, says, gesturing to the raised garden beds around him. “It’s a story that I’ve been dreaming of, to have something like this.”

For the last year, Chavez has led 44 Latino and Hispanic immigrant families in creating the Fatima Community Garden Project, a cluster of plots tucked behind Our Lady of Fatima on Street Road in Bensalem. The garden, a collaboration between Catholic Social Services and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, will officially open June 15.

It breaks new ground for the horticultural society as the first community garden the group helped build in Bucks County. Organizers and budding gardeners alike say the initiative is equal parts recreational and therapeutic, a chance for immigrant families to preserve their culture while building a supportive community in their new home.

The roots of the project, at least for Chavez, stretch back to his youth in Guatemala. Back to when his father, David, showed him how to plant and care for seeds, yielding the coffee, tomatoes, and other vegetables their family survived on.

As David’s health failed and his son left their home to find better opportunities in America, he told him to pass those lessons along.

“He told me to come here, to explain what he taught me," Chavez said. “He thought maybe it could help other people who are coming here.”

Dalila Gomez works in her garden plot. The initial 44 plots were constructed with help from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which provided materials and some instruction.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Dalila Gomez works in her garden plot. The initial 44 plots were constructed with help from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which provided materials and some instruction.

When Chavez arrived in Bensalem 17 years ago, there were no services like this, few opportunities outside of long, daylight working hours to commiserate with other newcomers in a strange land. Employment was plentiful in the suburbs, but not land — he and most of his coworkers lived in tight, tiny apartments, unable to garden.

The weather didn’t help, either: In Guatemala, there are two seasons, rainy and dry. The idea of four seasons, and the bitter cold some bring, was a foreign concept.

So the dream that Chavez’s father had planted in his head took a backseat as he worked an array of jobs — everything from construction to bartending — to send money back to his wife and children.

Now, years later, everyone is here with him in Bucks County. And the landscape for immigrant support is much more robust.

In 2014, Catholic Social Services opened the Fatima Catholic Outreach Center in the former Our Lady of Fatima Church, which merged with St. Charles Borromeo Parish. Estela Bugg, the development, volunteer, and community relations manager for CSS, envisioned that the acres behind the church could serve a grander purpose.

Parishioners who came to the outreach center for English classes and other services asked for a soccer pitch, and soon a 10-team league formed that still draws hundreds of players every season. But Bugg had a feeling that a garden would also be successful.

“When I worked with the families at site visits, I saw them planting wherever they could inside and outside,” Bugg said. “Vegetables on the first floor, in little spaces. Soybeans, tomatoes, all kinds of plants."

She saw it as an opportunity to fulfill two objectives: Bring immigrant families together, and boost their organizational skills. Bugg brought the idea of a self-governed, self-run community garden — like so many that dot neighborhoods throughout the city — to the Catholic Social Services board.

It was serendipitous: One of the board members is a supporter of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and enlisted help. They put an ad in the church bulletin, calling for gardeners. No one responded, Bugg said.

“I didn’t give up; I know there’s nothing better than one-on-one,” she said. “It took me 54 meetings to see how people felt about it, but nobody said no.”

Blanca Jarama, left, and J. Mizael Chavez work to put the finishing touches on the garden ahead of its public unveiling. Chavez said he used lessons taught to him by his father in helping build the community garden.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Blanca Jarama, left, and J. Mizael Chavez work to put the finishing touches on the garden ahead of its public unveiling. Chavez said he used lessons taught to him by his father in helping build the community garden.

Preparations began last year, at first with just 10 eager gardeners. Bugg pulled Chavez aside during a soccer game and asked him to help run the operation. The decision was easy, he said, especially with in-kind support of materials and direction from the horticultural society.

Slowly, the group grew, ballooning to the current 44 families, a mix of people from Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Matt Rader, the president of PHS, said his organization already had diverse experience working with immigrant communities: Burmese and Bhutanese in South Philly, Caribbeans in North Philly. Extending that service outside the city limits intrigued him.

“For people who have farming in their heritage, having a garden is a powerful way of bonding, and having food you’re accustomed to that you’re struggling to find is a powerful thing,” Rader said. “It bridges generations. Often we see older family members use it as a way to relate with their younger relatives.”

With the help of Bugg and Justin Trezza, PHS’s director of gardens, the 44 Fatima families learned to organize. They began to run their own meetings, electing Chavez garden president, and pairing off into committees with different responsibilities.

They wrote their own bylaws, determining that interested gardeners must pay $35 annually for upkeep and supplies.

“They have a lot of ambition; it’s a matter of telling them to take things one at a time, to solve little problems before moving on to larger goals,” Trezza said. “It’s been slow, but they’re learning from their mistakes as they grow.”

Last week, as the date for the garden’s public unveiling neared, gardeners toiled almost every evening, planting, watering, seeding.

Aida Hance was among them. Now retired from a long career with SEPTA, Hance is getting back to her literal roots, growing vegetables for her kitchen table as she did as a girl in Caguas, a Puerto Rican city just south of San Juan.

“That’s what I love, and I think it’s therapeutic for all of us,” Hance said. “Sometimes, when people first come here, they feel they don’t have a place to go. This is like a sanctuary.”