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Victoria woman creates aquaponic garden on downtown rooftop

By Bianca Montes
Jan. 19, 2014 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 19, 2014 at 7:20 p.m.

Stella Sanchez shows off a bottle of her "sassy salsa" in front of the Center for Peace. The roof of the building will be the home of an aquaponics garden, built to grow the tomatoes for her recipe. All of Sanchez's ingredients will be grown in a garden organically, she said.

Stella Sanchez stood in the parking lot of the new Center for Peace and smiled at her future. It was less than a year ago that Sanchez was homeless and once again lost into an addiction that had haunted her for 20 years.

She eagerly watched youth from First Baptist Church of Yoakum as they drilled holes into long pieces of tubing and cleared brush from atop the roof. To show them what they were working for, she filled small white cups up with her homemade salsa and offered them a taste.

It was good.

It was pleasantly spicy.

And the secret recipe she'd been perfecting for five years was going to change her life.

On Sunday, the youth group helped Sanchez build a water-based garden that would solely use the ecosystem of a fish farm to grow tomatoes.

Aquaponics works by blending a fish farm and a water garden. The wastewater pulled from the fish farm is filtered into the water garden. The plants then purify the water and recirculate it back into the fish farm.

Sanchez learned about aquaponics at a Christian Community conference. Some of her peers had integrated the system into low-income communities. Sanchez said she thought that she could do the same thing to feed her business.

But there was one problem: She didn't know how to make the garden.

Courtney Welch, director of the youth group, offered to help after learning about the project.

"I've just been waiting for God to put an opportunity in front of me," she said Sunday as she watched her husband repurpose two intermediate bulk containers into the base and top of the garden. Welch learned about aquaponics at a retreat in Virginia and jumped at the chance to help Sanchez. The public can view the water garden at the Breaking Ground Conference in February.

Sanchez completed courses at the Center for Peace, a program run by graduates of Perpetual Help Home to teach women entrepreneurship skills to empower them on their way out of poverty. She was taught how to successfully run a business and market her products.

Perpetual Help Home is a Christian-based program that helps woman break the cycle of incarceration, addiction and homelessness.

Executive Director Cheryl Miller said the program was energized by women in the home who, despite overcoming their vices, were unable to make a living.

"Next thing you know, they would be homeless again," she said.

"We knew they could build their lives back, but economically, they couldn't make it."

Sanchez took classes that prepared her to successfully run her own business, and after presenting a solid business plan to a venture capital program run by the center, she was offered a loan to fund her business.

Their confidence in her, Sanchez said, gave her the encouragement to stop looking back at her 20-year drug addiction and the near decade she lost going in and out of jail.

"I have something going for me," Sanchez said. "I don't have time to look back."



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