Armed with a garden spade he bought at a dollar store, Ray Ramirez spends most mornings tending to a new fruit tree orchard in Houston’s Greater East End. Tilling the soil, picking weeds and simply enjoying the edible beauty gives the 65-year-old recent retiree a sense of “peace and serenity.” “I wanted to show how much I appreciate it. It’s like I adopted these plants,” he said with a smile, like a proud new father.

More than a dozen apple, lemon, peach, grapefruit, orange, persimmon and fig trees now flourish on a previously unused piece of land outside Ramirez’s home, the New Hope Housing at Canal apartment community. About 80 percent of the residents live on less than $10,000 a year and have been formerly homeless. The nonprofit offers these vulnerable, at-risk citizens quality, affordable housing with extensive support services, but finding things to be positive about “can still be challenging for many residents,” he said.

The orchard was planted in May 2017 by University of Houston Honors College students. They partnered with New Hope Housing and Urban Harvest, which designed the space, on a service project called “Cultivate.”

“Planting these fruit trees not only provides some added nutrition for people in this area, but our main goal is to cultivate community,” said Robert Laroche, a UH biology major and Bonner Leader.

The University of Houston remains steadfast in its commitment to improving the quality of life in surrounding areas through the Neighborhood Initiative by focusing on education, empowerment and growth. With those goals in mind, the Bonner Leaders Program is working to establish community gardens and orchards in low-income areas all around Houston.

“It will help with food insecurity for the residents here but it will also help bring the neighborhood together,” said UH student Garrett Clark, who helped plant the trees.

While the UH students are responsible for the upkeep of the orchard, Ramirez is happy to volunteer his green thumb to help.

“Giving back to the community is part of the American spirit,” said Ramirez. “Now, there’s a healing quality to this space we can all be proud of.”