BELOIT — With a boost of grant funding, the Merrill Community Garden continues to empower young leaders, provide a tranquil place to unwind and nourish local families.

“This garden has really seen a spike in people using it for food this year,” said Merrill Community Garden Coordinator Kaelyb Lokrantz. “I think it shows we’re doing real well and people are buying into it.”

SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Janesville awarded one of three grants this year for the Merrill Community Garden as part of its Community Health Needs Assessments program.

Other grants were awarded to YWCA Rock County for counseling and mental health services, and also to the Rock County Breastfeeding Coalition in order to offer training courses for mothers.

A grant of $5,000 was awarded after Community Action submitted a mini-grant application, and it allowed for double the harvest at the Merrill Community Garden this year, said Community Health Manager Megan Timm.

The garden is a central hub for wellness in a food desert, Timm said, adding that addressing social and health needs go hand-in-hand. By serving a vulnerable population and offering access to fresh foods, she said the community as a whole will benefit.

With the extra grant funding, volunteers are building an outdoor community classroom that could accommodate schools and organizations alike. It’s a goal Lokrantz is excited to see come to fruition.

“It’s going to be a really cool space for community members to use,” Lokrantz said, adding the garden is a key resource. “I want this to be a place that provides people fresh, healthy food and also a place to enjoy nature.”

And the word is continually getting out.

Lokrantz said a West Side resident in Beloit recently mailed a surprise donation of $500 for the Merrill Community Garden. He said that kind gesture signals the community at large is coming together for a good cause.

Fresh Start students in Beloit have been working hard to build the outdoor classroom and maintain the gardens, Lokrantz said. Doing so helps them to build up essential leadership skills, learn in a hand-on setting and help out their families and friends.

Overall, he said, those valuable experiences carry over into adulthood and give people additional tools for success and healthy lifestyles.

Beloit Memorial High School senior Jarmairy Jarrett said for her, the gardens is more than a place to learn and volunteer, it is a relaxing and calming place to be.

“Anything I can do to help, it’s a relaxing, beautiful place to go,” she said.

As an added bonus, volunteering at the garden means having access to delicious raspberries and tomatoes.

Being a part of the Fresh Start program feels like a family atmosphere, she said.

Jarrett said she is excited to help build a house soon through the program, and she encourages other youths to get involved to meet friends and learn new things.