Inspiration

How One Man Used His Green Thumb to Fill a Community With Joy During Covid-19

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Sitting on his tractor in his backyard in Calera, Alabama, Billy Graham Jr. sighed as he looked around. It had been days since he’d seen a friendly face, as most of his neighbors were holed up indoors in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The emotional impact of this virus could be as bad as the virus itself, Billy worried, thinking of all the people who may experience depression and anxiety from the isolation.

But as he started up his 1979 rototiller, Billy felt moved to do something to help. Having been a farmer and lover of gardening for most of his life, he knew the positive effects of being outdoors and watching something grow.

I’m going to till my neighbors’ overgrown gardens, he thought. Maybe that will encourage them to get outside and let the sunshine and fresh air work their magic.

To start, he called a neighbor to ask if she’d be open to him tilling her soil. “Of course!” she exclaimed, and just hours later, she was smiling from ear to ear and sending Billy home with homemade brownies. “It’s a thank-you for putting my garden back in good order!” she said. “Enjoy these treats for a job well done!” Billy was thrilled to see how much joy this simple act brought her, and he decided to seek out more yards to work his gardening magic on.

“Can I come till your yard?” Billy asked his friend Pat Johnson, the founder of Veterans Farming Initiative, an organization that offers opportunities in agriculture and gardening to veteran farmers. For years, Billy had leased land to Pat for agritherapy, which uses farming to help combat PTSD symptoms, but as Billy told him about what he’d been doing since the virus’ outbreak, Pat’s excitement was overwhelming.

“This is great work,” he marveled, when a question came to him. “But aside from helping people till their soil, what else can we do to help?” It was something Billy had been considering himself as he looked for other ways to bring hope to his community, and before he knew it, Billy found himself using his trusty tractor to fill in potholes in the roads, level out bumpy driveways, and dig ponds.

And as news of Billy’s acts of kindness spread, Pat got a call from a plant nursery wanting to donate dozens of flowers and vegetables to be planted on the neighbors’ newly tilled land.

“We’re so glad to have our beautiful garden back!” said one resident, who had recently lost her husband. Soon, Billy noticed his other neighbors were coming outside again, smiling and waving as others began building fences around their gardens and putting down seeds to grow vegetables.

For Pat, nothing could make him prouder. “Billy is always helping people,” he says of his friend. “I hope his work inspires others to pass it on!” And, as Billy’s community blooms again, he says he feels his own heart fill with joy. “It makes me feel good to know I’m doing what I can to help,” he says. “All people are capable of giving back. I’m just one person, but a little goes a long way!”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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