Jim O’Neill

Muncie resident Jim O’Neill and his best friend, Finn McCool.

A garden grows through good and bad

By Will Aiken

On any given sunny day, you’ll find Jim O’Neil his best friend, Finn McCool, tending to their garden or on a walk. Today, the two are perched on the porch of O’Neill’s Linden Street home, which his father bought for the family of eight in 1955, two years after it was built. O’Neill—with Finn by his side—has been fixing up the place since 2010, when he moved in after his mother died. “It’s fulfilling to restore your childhood home,” O’Neill said. “It feels right.”

O’Neill comes from factory stock. His father worked for 50 years in Muncie’s booming industries while his mother kept the children and the house. O’Neill followed his father’s footsteps, laying brick for many Ball State buildings and area courthouses for most of the ’90s. He spent 10 years fixing transmission lines throughout Indiana and Michigan, but a June 2000 accident left him disabled and unable to work.

Paying for medical bills and a leaky roof, among other unexpected expenses, plowed through his savings. The family home’s outdated heating system cost him $400 a month, which forced him to regularly decide between heating his home and buying groceries.

“There were several winter months I thought I might starve or freeze, depending on how I spent my money,” he said. “Usually, I’d go hungry before going to a food pantry or asking for assistance because there’s a lot of hungry kids in the county, and I don’t like taking food from a hungry child’s mouth. I can go hungry, but a child can’t.”

Finn’s full food bowl suggests O’Neill feels the same about his four-legged pal, making sure the pup is taken care of before O’Neill thinks about his own needs.

A Hand Up, Not a Hand Out

Tired and hopeless, O’Neill reached out to Muncie’s Holistic Rehab Program, a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity and ecoREHAB, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable building, design and education. The organizations updated O’Neill’s heating and cooling system and repaired the roof and leaky gutters.

His heating bill averages about $90 a month now. He regularly eats.

The one constant—through good and bad—that sustained O’Neill is his garden. His family grew tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, bush beans and more on the south side of the Linden Street home. The garden has had good years and bad, but O’Neill’s favorite—tomatoes—have produced, year after year.

“My dad would come home after work and run me out of the garden, otherwise I’d fill up before supper,” he said. O’Neill’s family maintained the garden throughout his childhood, which is how he came to love “playing in the dirt and growing sustenance.”

Hope after the Harvest

This year’s harvest included tomatoes, bell peppers, snack peppers and blackberries. O’Neill gave some of the produce to volunteers in the rehabilitation programs to show his appreciation for their support.

O’Neill said he feels judged. People look at him and others who are food insecure and think, “they can walk, so they can work,” he said. “But it’s just not the case. People’s lives and obstacles are more complex than first impressions.”

“I think we could all use reminders of the lessons we learned in kindergarten,” he added. “If the world would get better at sharing, it might become a better place.”