About 300 people turned out to celebrate the annual Harvest Day at Walnut Way Sunday, nine days after an accidental fire caused significant damage to the building at 2240 N. 17th St.
“People were excited and we had a lot of support,” said Kimberly Njoroge, community engagement specialist for Walnut Way, a well-respected community organization working to improve the quality of life in Lindsay Heights on the city’s North Side.
The annual festival was held on 17th Street and North Avenue, in front of the damaged community center, which also houses the organization’s offices. Residents enjoyed youth activities, African storytelling, live music, Zumba, food and a children’s parade before heavy rains caused the event to end early about halfway through.
“The fire was unexpected, but it didn’t throw us off,” said Jeremy Davis, environmental specialist at Walnut Way. “Harvest Day’s theme is healing and abundance, and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on.”
The fire ripped through the attic on Sept. 27, and smoke and water damage destroyed the second floor and attic walls. Director of Programs and Walnut Way co-founder Sharon Adams was the only person in the house when the fire broke out, and made it out safely. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but investigators found an electrical box with heavy fire damage.
The organization restored the former drug house, which had been slated for demolition, into a community center. The center hosts community events, educational programs, seminars, tours and meetings.
Harvest activities continued Monday with canning and preserving at the Urban Ecology Center-Riverside Park, 1500 E. Park Place. Walnut Way had planned the event with Christina Ward, master food preserver and teacher, well before the fire, and Ward’s connection to the Urban Ecology Center quickly relieved concern about where to hold it.
“Urban Ecology Center had asked me to donate a class at the center, and when I heard about the fire at Walnut Way, it made sense to have it here,” Ward said. “These are two places dedicated to the environment, and people can learn about both centers and their work at the same time.”
About a dozen volunteers and Walnut Way staff members cleaned, cut, cooked and made jelly out of the harvest of jalapeño, cayenne, bell and tabasco peppers.
A letter written by co-founders Sharon and Larry Adams about the fire was recently posted on Walnut Way’s website, sharing the news and next steps for the organization.
“Through this tragedy, we are reminded of the importance of our work and commitment,” the post reads in part. “The fire damaged our home, but it is also a catalyst to rebuild. With support from our neighbors and friends, we are equipped to move forward.”
Walnut Way will move to a temporary location at 1836 W. Fond du Lac Ave. next week, as its permanent home at the Innovations and Wellness Commons on 16th and North Avenue is built. The move to the commons was already in the works before the fire, Davis said.
“The Walnut Way Center on 17th Street will remain our hub for urban agriculture, environmental stewardship, and a site for historical learning about community engagement and development,” according to the Walnut Way website.
Financial donations are being accepted through Walnut Way’s website.
Walnut Way is the lead agency in Lindsay Heights for the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative. It was one of two pilot neighborhoods chosen by the Zilber Family Foundation for grants to improve the quality of life for residents.