Children happily watered the rich, brown soil of an urban garden in Northside Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood on a sunny afternoon in early April. One pint-sized young girl insisted on lugging a full watering can almost as big as she was.

Other children pointed eagerly to patches of earth where they had planted carrots, watermelon, and tomatoes. Yellow, orange, and purple pansies added a splash of color to one corner of the garden.

Thanks to the efforts of Keon Monroe, ’13, children who attend an after-school program run by the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond in Highland Park now have the opportunity to get their hands dirty while working in the garden.

It all started when Monroe, an environmental studies major from Hyattsville, Md., registered to volunteer with Build It, a neighborhood-based initiative coordinated by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

“When I learned of Keon’s interest in environmental science and sustainability, I asked him if he would consider creating a garden for Youth Life, a Build It partner site,” said Build It program manager Cassie Price.

“Several years ago, the Youth Life executive director asked me about the possibility of starting a garden for the organization’s after-school program.

“I needed to find someone to spearhead the project. Keon was that someone.”

During spring semester 2011, Monroe researched and devised a plan for a simple raised-bed urban garden, priced necessary supplies, and recruited a team of University of Richmond students and staff to build the garden.

He also found time to volunteer weekly with Youth Life as a tutor and mentor to fifth grader Keondre Spencer. Volunteering brought unexpected benefits, Monroe said.

“Working with children lets you know there’s something other than classwork,” he said. “It gives me a broader perspective on life.”

Monroe hopes his volunteer efforts have also benefitted the Youth Life children.

“Children need to know where our food comes from,” he said. “We need to respect where we get the basics to support us.”

Youth Life teacher James Fifield agreed.

“Inner-city kids don’t usually get to experience and understand gardening,” Fifield said. “This garden will let them follow the life cycle of a plant from seed to harvest.

“Tending a garden every day will also teach the children the value of faithfulness and patience. They won’t see results right away, but eventually they will reap a harvest.”

Keondre is looking forward to that harvest.

“I like all the fruits and vegetables we planted in the garden,” the fifth grader said. “I’m especially excited about eating the corn.”