A seed planted with Littleton resident Shirl Smith in 2005 is about to bear fruit.
Smith’s dream is to create a community fruit orchard to provide food for those less fortunate and to teach people how to live off the land. She wants to spread the idea across the country but hopes to lay the groundwork close to home.
Enter South Jeffco's Waterstone Community Church. The large church just east of C-470 on West Bowles Avenue has donated roughly 5 acres for Smith’s orchard. Smith plans to start the project this spring, and if everything goes according to schedule, free fruit will be available to those who need it in two years.
The seed of the idea was spiritual.
"God planted it in my heart," Smith said.
Smith has lived all over the country. She grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and was on her own at age 13. She says the experience taught her how to survive and showed her the value of living off what one has.
In 2003, while living in the Littleton area and working for a satellite TV company, Smith found religion. After a brief return to the East Coast, she was back in Littleton in 2005, the same year she became a member of Waterstone Church. And that’s when the idea for vegetable gardens and community fruit orchards began to germinate.
"The passion began to grow, and the need to help others became stronger and stronger and stronger," Smith said.
People she knew liked the idea but thought that community orchards were too ambitious a goal.
So she started small, establishing a community vegetable garden and pumpkin patch on Waterstone's land last spring.
"She's a real visionary," said Brad Heykoop, the church's director of operations. "She's a driver."
Heykoop said last year’s vegetable garden was a success, but it also showed how involved a community garden could be, as Smith and church officials had to find a way to provide irrigation.
"She did a good job on that," Heykoop said.
Heykoop says the church now will allow Smith to use roughly 5 acres of its land on the condition that the orchard would have to move if the church wants to develop the land for another use.
"I can't foresee us building or doing anything else on it, but I can't see the future," Heykoop said.
Now comes the hard part. Smith concedes that creating the orchard she has in mind will not be easy.
She envisions 25 fruit trees, six arches of grapevines and a strawberry patch, all of which she said are well-suited to Colorado's climate. But fruit trees take a long time to grow, and mature ones can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. Smith plans to apply for grants and rely on donations from the community.
Irrigation will be another hurdle: Smith has learned that it would take $25,000 just to get water from a pipe near West Bowles Avenue the short distance to the orchard site, and that doesn't include an irrigation system to deliver the water to the plants.
In December, Smith formed Feeding Many, a nonprofit designed to put her ideas into action. Through the nonprofit, Smith will take donations and seek grants for the orchard and any future projects.
Nick Lillo, lead pastor at Waterstone, loves the idea.
"I am excited to see the land used for a good purpose," Lillo said. "Shirl works hard and has a great vision and wants to really help people. This is an excellent way to do it."
No matter the many hurdles in her way, Smith is determined to make the orchard a reality in South Jeffco.
"We're here to see what we can do to improve the community," Smith said. "These are hard times right now. The only way we can get through it is if we can come together as a community."
To donate to Shirl Smith's community fruit orchard, e-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at 303-862-4339. You can visit Feeding Many at www.feedingmany.org, or in person at 7274 S. Webster St.