If you have ever pondered or perhaps doubted the power of one, look no further for affirmation than a humble gardener in San Antonio. Stephen Lucke of Gardopia Gardens is clear validation that, as an American historian said, “One individual can change millions of lives.” A young man with big dreams and, indeed, a powerful plan, he is well on his way to doing just that.
“I love that I’m not in a cubicle eight hours a day,” Lucke said. “I’m able to grow my own food and have an impact on so many people in so many walks of life. A garden is truly an equalizer. It breaks down barriers, builds relationships, and starts difficult discussions that affect our community.”
Lucke is the founder of Gardopia Gardens, a wellness-based non-profit that runs a community micro-farm and hosts educational opportunities, specifically workshops, courses, and classes, often geared toward kids. Topics range from rain barrel making, composting with worms, culinary mushrooms, and gardening and landscaping 101. Gardopia recently put on a class for high functioning special needs students, ages 16 to 24. “Once certified with us, these students can now go to work at nurseries and landscape companies,” Lucke said.
“Since I’ve been a young adult, I have always been into healthy lifestyles,” he said. He ran track and field at the University of the Incarnate Word and pursued a degree in biochemistry.
“My personal words to live by are, ‘Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food,’ a quote by Hippocrates,” he said. “I just want to make myself healthy first and foremost, and if I can use my knowledge to make others healthy, then I think that’s a great calling. Everything comes down to food. You are what you eat.”
Back in January 2012, when Lucke was exploring options for his career, he considered being a nutritionist and growing fresh, organic food for his clients. “I was looking for jobs and meditating and praying when the idea of a nutritionist gardener came to me, and I realized I could be happy the rest of my life in the garden,” he said.
Lucke was then hired by the landscaping department at the University of the Incarnate Word, where he started a garden in the front yard. “By August, I had grown a 100-pound Roma tomato plant and thought, ‘I got it. I know what to do,’ and I don’t even like tomatoes. I pulled one off the vine, put it in my
mouth, and cringed a little, but it wasn’t bad,” he said.
The experience began to expand his palate and his potential. He next went to the university administration and gained approval to start a community garden. Lucke then went to work doing what he does best, and that is growing relationships, as well as food. He raised thousands of dollars to start that community garden. “It took off almost immediately,” Lucke said. “Professors started using it for their classes, and I started doing some cooking demos. It was a success, and I wanted to take this knowledge outside of the bubble.”
“Stephen and Gardopia Gardens is a great example of a community partner in action,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, Ed.D., director of Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability at the University of the Incarnate Word. “Over the past four years, Gardopia has provided outstanding garden talks for the University of the Incarnate Word students on the benefits of gardening and sustainability. Moreover, Stephen has been committed to the east side community of San Antonio. He not only educates and brings awareness of gardening to the area, but he has been able to bring in other non-profits, educational and governmental agencies, to support the needs of the community. In short, Gardopia is more than gardening and sustainability; it’s about planting seeds of hope, opportunity, and innovation in the community.”
The following year, Lucke worked with Ella Austin Community Center’s youth program, where they created a children’s garden. “We’d come out and volunteer and maintain it and teach kids lessons,” he said.
It was at this time another lightbulb came on for Lucke. “I started seeing all these gardens that were defunct, and I said, ‘You know what, I could start a niche company to provide sustainable house, restaurant, and church gardens,” he said. “Everyone wants to garden but they don’t know how, so they
give up. They might have invested $500 or $5,000, and it’s a shame to put all that time, effort, and resources into a space and see it turn into grass two years later.”
Lucke realized that there were not viable organizations that provided garden sustainability, so he decided to bridge that gap and provide leadership, optimization, maintenance, academic curriculum, design, construction, and more.
“It’s not a one and done project,” he said. “We are with that school, that family, that chef for as long as necessary to make sure that garden is always thriving. If the teacher, parent, employee ever leaves – the champion of the garden – we’re still there to help that leadership transition.”
Although Lucke was building up momentum, it was not until he met a lawyer in 2015 and was able to barter with him for personal training services that Gardopia Gardens officially became a non-profit. It took three and a half years for his idea to finally come to fruition, in every sense of the word. “We’re
here, we’re still alive, and we’re still growing,” Lucke said confidently.
The garden-based learning while working with youth had started to take off, but Lucke quickly realized they needed a home base. “I kept putting that energy out into the universe,” he said. “Then, about two months later, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) contacted me.” What happened next was what some might call a blessing in disguise. SAHA offered Lucke two vacant lots, thanks to a land-use agreement, on San Antonio’s east side, close to downtown on North New Braunfels and Nolan, but it came with a catch.
“They said this intersection has the highest crime in San Antonio – drugs, prostitution, killings, loitering, and homeless encampments [on the vacant lots],” Lucke said, although he was not the least bit deterred.
SAHA was awarded an Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant from the United States Department of Justice with the goal to reduce crime on the near east side. “Many studies have shown that community gardens create food security, self-sufficiency, and physical activity, but it’s also good for community building,” he said. “Advocacy groups and people from all walks of life come together to have discussions to improve the community.”
Through the grant, Gardopia Gardens received $500 to help with their new mission to set up a community garden. They went to work cleaning up the property and had a block party in October of 2015 to launch the new garden. The non-profit had their first garden-coordinated event during DreamWeek in March of 2016, after which they were allocated $7,000 more from the grant.
The new garden enabled community members to adopt a plot of land with a raised garden bed, seeds, and fertilizer, and work it to earn the fruits of their labor. Gardopia also created opportunities for some of the homeless in the neighborhood to lend a hand. “We’ve always welcomed the tribe of impoverished community members who live there or are homeless with the understanding that they can’t do drugs, fight, or drink all day in the garden,” Lucke said. “They’re allowed to come and harvest in the garden. There’s still more work to be done. In the future, I’d love to provide jobs, and one vision is to have tiny houses, but that’s probably a fifteen- to [a] 20-year goal.”
In the meantime, crime in that location has diminished. “I have seen a significant decrease in crime, with a specificity to gunshots, although it moved north and south,” he said. “So, yes, we saw a decrease at our intersection, but did not solve the crime problem on the corridor.”
So, what is next for this green pioneer? The shorter-term five- year plan includes continuing the Gardopia micro-farm and its educational offerings, as well as opening a small nursery and new juice bar. The juice bar will utilize the beautiful, fresh off-the-vine, organic vegetables, and help establish a sustainable business model so that the organization does not have to rely on grants and donations.
Lucke has launched a new video series on organic gardening. Somehow this forward-thinking farmer has also managed to find the time to work on a master’s degree in nutrition. Gardopia Gardens is working toward raising a quarter of a million dollars to purchase the property on which it is currently stationed, property that was once worth only about $30,000. With the push to revitalize the east side, housing prices are steadily increasing, regardless of any remaining crime in the area.
“I plan to continue to champion healthy lifestyles with an emphasis on garden-based learning,” he said. “I truly believe if kids grow kale, kids eat kale. Like the Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley said, ′If you teach them to be connected to their food system, you can address the epidemic of malnourishment.’”
Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” Stephen Lucke and his Gardopia Gardens team would most likely make her proud.