DIXON, Ill. — “She's always given to other people, always going above and beyond for anyone that needs any help and she’s just really wonderful,” said Laura Santos when asked why her friend, Billie Jo Laidig, of 40 years deserves the Pay It Forward award.
Billie Jo works at Lincoln School in Dixon, Illinois where she started a gardening program 5 years ago.
“I believe that knowing how to grow food is very important. I believe it’s a skill that maybe one day will be very important to these kids,” said Billie Jo.
Since starting the program, Billie Jo has not only volunteered her time but her money as well.
“I’ve put up quite a bit of money into the dirt and peat moss, and whatnot, but other than that the community has very, very [helpful] get some pots here and there and donations,” said Billie Jo.
Together, Billie Jo and the Dixon community have been able to create a garden out of reused items.
“Everything here is recycled," Billie Jo said. "It’s been given to us [from] a clipping here or clipping there and it’s just grown from that. The woodchips were donated, the old carpet is under there [were donated]. The brinks [are] from the basement, me, and my son Kyler we carried them up in 5-gallon buckets, you know. So, it grows as we grow."
The community has had the opportunity to grow plants themselves along with the students.
“We’ve done seed packets where kids made origami envelopes and labeled them and put seeds in from our pumpkins and marigold and gore that we grew and we put them out [in] the bookstore and around the town for people to grow with us,” said Billie Jo.
The food that is grown in the garden gets taken home with the students.
“We feed our families. We do a lot of high-yield plants, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers,” said Billie Jo.
They also give fresh-grown produce to the community as well.
“When they harvest the food the families [they] can take it home to cook for themselves or give to other people and they take extra down to the food pantry,” said Laura.
Laura also believes teaching kids how to grow food is important.
“Some people have food insecurities and if they can grow their own food that helps stretch their food budget a little bit,” said Laura
But it’s just not vegetables that are grown and given away in the garden.
“We make flower bouquets for moms [who] may have had a hard day,” said Billie Jo.
Learning how to garden is not only a valuable life skill but can teach children many life lessons.
“You take that seed, and you can make it happen, it might happen the first time or the second or the third but eventually it’s going to work if you keep at it,” said Billie Jo
Another lesson is that one learns through their mistakes “Just getting dirty and being out there is a hobby that you learn a lot through your mistakes, mostly but you learn a lot through gardening,” said Billie Jo.
Billie Jo hopes that the program will leave a lasting mark on her students.
“There’s a memory of like scent memory. And we have a lot of smells in here we have lemon and onion and garlic and mint, and all these smells," Billie Jo said. "And I always want them to smell it because I believe that someday they’re gonna be at the store or grow their own and they’re gonna smell that smell and they’re gonna come back to this time when they first smell it and I’ve [known I’ve] made my impact.”
She is already helping her students learn more about gardening the best crops.
When asked what their favorite plant was, one student responded, “Jalapeños." Another responded, “Tomatoes." And a third responded, “Sunflowers."
They enjoy gardening with Billie Jo very much! Most of her students were introduced to gardening for the first time through her program and plan to continue their skills throughout their lives.
Billie Jo does have a future for the garden.
“I would love to put in perennials. I would love something rhubarbs and the asparaguses and maybe a blueberry bush,” said Billie Jo
If there is one thing, she wants her students to get out of the program it's, "That there is magic in everywhere in your yard and dirt in your grass in your garden and with a little bit of luck, a little bit of hard work. You can grow something to share to eat to consume."
See previous Pay It Forward award winners: