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Squirm 'n' Learn

Worms, dirt, and the difference between nowhere to turn and somewhere to go.

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On a Friday evening on the 6400 block of South Peoria in Englewood, jump ropes snap against the pavement. A girl, riding a bike without training wheels for the first time, pedals a fly's path down the sidewalk, past graystone three-flats, under giant oaks. An old man, just home from work and still wearing a shirt with his name stitched on the breast, inspects his yard.

At the south end of the block is the PEACE Center. It's in the annex of Saint Stephen's Lutheran Church, which was built in 1909 by Germans, then abandoned when they left the neighborhood. The word "PEACE" is painted across the front of the building in blue flaking letters. It stands for People Educated Against Crime in Englewood and Everywhere.

Anita Dominique, a great-grandmother who's nanny to the dozens of children who come to the center for after-school tutoring or a free supper, is addressing a group of teenagers from Christ Church in Lake Forest. They're down for the day to help plant the center's meditation garden.

"Do you have a safe place to go in your neighborhood?" asks the woman everyone calls Miss Dominique. "A place where your parents don't mind you going? We started this place so the youth of the community, as well as the adults, would have a place to go."

The teenagers from Lake Forest crowd around one bed of dirt, the children of Englewood around another. They pack flowers into the soil--delicate purple lobelia, orange and lemon marigolds arranged in the shape of a peace sign.

"I hope we plant azaleas," says 12-year-old Gina. "That's my grandmother's name. She just died in January." A little later she says, "This neighborhood would be all right if there weren't no drug dealers or shooting. I want to live in a neighborhood with no cursing or shooting."

She swivels around and points down the block. "One person got shot three times in the white house, and they burned down the house next to that," she says. "There's a big-eared boy live in that green house, but who wants to play with him? When we did that car wash there"--she indicates a weed-covered parking lot next to the church --"the police had come because somebody hid a gun in there. Me and my cousin Cookie went and looked the next day, and it was drugs in there. And then some boys looked in a Dumpster, and it was a gun."

She sounds exasperated. "The police be over here, the corn man be over here, the ice cream man come here, but nobody else. It's so empty here."

The yard in front of the PEACE Center was empty too--nothing but beaten-down grass and bare patches until Miss Dominique conceived this garden. A wooden trellis will someday be covered with clematis. Already winding among the flowers is a pathway that the children laid stone by stone.

"The name of this center is PEACE, and these kids when they come in, sometimes they're very angry," Miss Dominique says. "Sometimes I say, 'Take a walk.' But this is not a walk for punishment. They need to know there's a place they can go and not be angry."

The peace garden will grow in compost generated by a worm farm the PEACE Center's children tended for months. Over the winter Miss Dominique and 13-year-old Hal Baskin Jr. spent a weekend in Milwaukee learning about worm farming from Growing Power, an organization that promotes urban agriculture and community gardening. They returned with two plastic tubs, a few bags of soil, jars of worm food, and a tiny colony of worms.

"You're going to be farmers," Miss Dominique told the children last March. "Today we're going to start on our first worm bin. We're going to be pioneers right over here in this area."

The children pushed to get a view of the worms. LaToya squealed when she looked in a bucket and saw dirt veined with the squirming creatures. Sharonda pinched a worm between her fingers, dropped it back in the bucket, and ran away squealing. Eric refused to hold a worm at all, saying, "It's gonna bite me!"

Miss Dominique explained how worms fertilize the soil they live in. "It's the stuff that comes out of worms," she said. "Worm boo-boo."

"Uhh, that's nasty!" Anfernee said.

It's part of nature, said Miss Dominique.

The children lined up to fill the bins with soil. Each took a chunk of dirt, dark and moist as Black Forest cake. Even three-year-old Kyla rolled up her sleeve and thrust a tiny fist into the bucket.

"It feels like squishy," Jasmine complained, then ran to the bathroom to wash the dirt off her hands.

"We have to check on these worms every day," Miss Dominique said. She looked at Hal. "Hal, what should we be checking for?"

"Temperature," he said. "To see how much food they had."

The children saved their orange peels from dinner--the worms liked to eat orange peels. They also liked apples, sweet potatoes, green beans. It all went into the bins. In two months the worms were fat as nightcrawlers and the mulch they lived in smelled like a school lunch that had been left in a locker all summer.

When the dirt had become fertilizer Miss Dominique gathered the children again. Some of them hadn't seen the worms in a while.

"Oooh! Slugs!" one boy cried, pointing at a worm flowing up the inside of a transparent bin. "Those are slugs! They stink!"

"Get back, child," said Chyrisse, one of Miss Dominique's grown-up assistants. "You smelled worse. They gotta eat, child, don't they?"

Miss Dominique dipped her hand into the bin and came up with a wriggling hunk of soil. Some of the worms were as big as baby snakes, others were tiny as centipedes. "Here I go," she said. "No gloves. How 'bout that? A hand full of worms! You see the babies up in there? Now I'm gonna see who's brave."

Gionte tried to be brave. He approached the bin, but the odor was so repellent he cried "Uhhhh!" and writhed away.

"Is that a new dance?" Chyrisse asked. "I thought it came out of Batman or Catwoman or something."

A few children got close enough to pitch more orange peels into the bin before Miss Dominique set the screen back over the top.

"This is compost," she said. "It's very rich. The worms boo-booed in it."

On planting day the children dig out the weeds with spades, fingers, and rakes. They grasp for flowers in plastic shells and show off bugs they've pinched from the dirt.

Jasmine is squatting close to the ground, sliding a lollipop in and out of her mouth. Miss Dominique leans down behind her and says, "Jasmine, better take that sucker out of your mouth or you'll be eating dirt." Then she hustles to the other side of the bed and helps two children plant a flower.

By six o'clock everyone's gone--the volunteers, the neighborhood children. Miss Dominique sits in the silent garden. Between the end of the working day and the onset of night the block is as quiet as a suburban cul-de-sac or a country road.

Miss Dominique says she's tired. She says she feels that way a lot. She'd been retired from her job as a manager at CNA insurance for just 30 days when one of the PEACE Center's founders called and asked her to take over the youth program. Now she spends her mornings writing grants for the Will Feed Community Organization, which funds the PEACE Center, and her afternoons with the children--overseeing their homework, teaching them to paint with watercolors or play checkers, spooning out the meals delivered each day by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

"CNA was a 60-hour-a-week job," she says. "Working in the community is a nonstop job. People knock on your door. Kids knock on your door. They don't realize you need rest."

She walks along the snaking path and stops at the last stone. It's shaped like an arrowhead, as though pointing toward something. "You're supposed to come out of this path and be a better person," she says. "Meditation. That's what this labyrinth is about. I had one little one say, 'I want to come in here and pray for God.' That's kind of profound, isn't it?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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