A story time event at Winnemac Park's youth teaching garden. Credit: Provided.

LINCOLN SQUARE — The stewards of Winnemac Park’s award-winning youth garden have connected with the woman who founded it years ago — and whose identity had been a mystery to them until now.

Neighbors began caring for the garden at the southwest corner of Winnemac Park, 5100 N. Leavitt St., in 2021. But they didn’t know who installed the garden beds and its hand-painted sign or planted the chives and single tomato that had survived among the weeds overtaking the area.

The only clue neighbors had was the name “Gina” carved into a seat made from a tree stump at the garden.

Once, a Park District staffer dropping off wood chips casually mentioned a “Gina” who had helped launch the garden and might have worked for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, said garden volunteer Mike Roach. 

Roach still didn’t know how to get in touch with her. That changed when Block Club ran a story about the garden — officially the Winnemac Park Youth Teaching Garden — winning a Chicago Excellence in Gardening Award.

One of the groups of children who helped maintain the Winnemac Youth Teaching Garden between 2017 and 2019. Credit: Provided.

A Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman contacted former staffer Gina Ceh to tell her about the garden’s award, and Ceh contacted Block Club.

“I would love to meet the current neighbors, because I was so sad to know that that garden wasn’t being tended to,” said Ceh, now retired and living in suburban Plainfield. “It really was an enjoyable time for me, gardening there. Bringing something so positive right to young people and the community.”

In 2017, when Ceh worked for the state’s attorney’s office, she led a project to install the eight garden beds at Winnemac Park as part of a program to help neighborhood kids get interested in gardening, she said. 

“It was for the after-school kids, and then they would turn into the summer kids who would keep gardening, which is super helpful because it was the same group throughout the year to help work garden,” Ceh said. “When we first started, it was just a labor of love and, for me, it really turned into an amazing project.”

Greencorps Chicago prepared the area, installed the garden beds and did landscaping for the site, Ceh said. 

The Greencorps program helps people from the city’s underserved neighborhoods create change in their lives and communities through training, service and career opportunities in environmental fields.

“That group was amazing because the group of guys that built those beds were on a second path,” she said. “They had a troubled past and this was teaching them tools and skills for different career paths to help change their future.” 

The garden got help from former Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), now-retired Sgt. Atour Bethishou from the Lincoln (20th) Police District, the Park District, Gethsemane Garden Center and other groups. But at the end of the day, Ceh oversaw the day-to-day care of the garden, she said.

“It was completely empty when we started. And I ended up partnering with others by just kind of talking to people and working with them,” she said. 

Volunteers and their children garden at Winnemac Park’s youth teaching garden. Credit: Provided.

During Ceh’s morning commute, she’d drop by the garden to water it and maybe pull a few weeds. In the afternoon, students and neighborhood kids would check on the garden, she said. 

“In the fall, we would plant mums. We’d put scarecrows up and bales of hay,” Ceh said. “And we used to do little Christmas lights during Christmas. We wanted it to be an all-season project for the kids, because they were there all year like for after school, as well.”

In 2019, Ceh was transferred to suburban Bridgeview for her job, leaving her little time to care for the garden or lead its programs.

After Ceh retired in 2021, the garden sat neglected — until Roach and his daughter, Ella, showed up.

Ella, who was 1 at the time, noticed a tomato plant and pointed it out to her dad among the weeds, Roach previously said.

“She didn’t talk then, but she knew how to say, ‘daddy.’ And she was like, ‘daddy, daddy,’ and pointing to the tomato plant,” he said. 

Ceh has since chatted on the phone with Roach and other neighbors who are now caring for the garden. Ceh plans to drop by once the weather is nice next year, she said.

“I’m super happy that the community stepped up because I’m a very visual person and I wanted beautification for the kids, as well as a garden, right?” she said. 

“It’s ironic,” Roach said. “We both got involved in the garden in very different ways years apart, but our vision of a teaching space for city kids was identical.”

To keep the garden sustainable, neighbors are working with the Chicago Parks Foundation to establish a fundraising and volunteering page, Roach said. 

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