Grass Valley friends mourn the loss of community gardener Roberto Wilson
December 4, 2017
For more than a decade, Roberto Wilson was a familiar sight, digging in the dirt out behind his Olympia Park Circle apartment in Grass Valley.
The 72-year-old Haitian immigrant, whose speech had been severely affected due to a stroke nearly two decades ago, found working in the soil a therapeutic exercise. As a result, he became known by passersby as the man who transformed a small weed patch into a meticulously cared-for garden.
Although he kept largely to himself, friends and neighbors say they were saddened to learn that Wilson had recently passed away. Only remnants of what was once a flourishing garden can now be spotted among the dried grass and encroaching bramble.
But those who knew him say he left behind the spirit of a man who seemed to teach others how to find joy in the face of adversity.
"I used to stop by to see Roberto all the time," said neighbor Digger Daniels, who would leave items from the food bank at the garden for Wilson if he wasn't there. Not only was he a talented painter, added Daniels, he was an accomplished Latin guitar player.
Daniels later matched Wilson with a Meals on Wheels volunteer, who grew increasingly concerned when Wilson wasn't answering his door.
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Years ago, Wilson could be seen digging with his bare hands before people began to donate gardening tools. He grew vegetables that he shared with neighbors and employees in an adjacent office complex. Then he was told by his landlords that he could no longer grow food, and much of the garden was dismantled, including a make-shift fence.
But that didn't deter Wilson, who instead began pouring his heart and soul into growing flowers. Apparently, that also raised the ire of his landlords.
"Roberto Wilson came to Community Legal as a beautiful contributor to his community who was misunderstood by his landlords due to his limited speech following his stroke," said Erin Noel of Community Legal, a legal aid organization that serves people with very low incomes, seniors and people with disabilities on housing and other legal matters. "He was on the verge of being evicted, because he wanted to grow a community flower garden. He said that because he has limited speech and is black, people did not always understand his motivations and assumed the worst."
"He left Community Legal and was allowed to stay as a tenant for several more years, and also left offering to advocate for those who advocated for him," Noel said. "He wanted to speak up for the importance of legal service for all, and decided to give back to Community Legal by asking to appear in our materials as a supporter."
As a gesture of gratitude to Community Legal, Wilson allowed the nonprofit to share his story, in the hopes of helping to raise funds for the organization.
In a story written about him in 2016, Wilson said he moved to the United States from Haiti at the age of 22 to study at the University of Chicago and live in the school's International House. Despite suffering a stroke in 1999, his French/Haitian Creole accent was unmistakable. Over the years, social workers discovered that while French was his first language, Spanish was his second and English his third. But despite the frustration of losing his ability to speak fluidly, it seems his indefatigable generosity of spirit was easily communicated to those who took the time to know him.
"He was one of those unique people who takes his own adversity as an opportunity to give to others," said Noel.
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.