Green Corn Project: Lydia & Juan Cruz

By Suzanne Hurley     

There’s nothing like harvesting your first crop of organic vegetables, and that’s just what Lydia and Juan Cruz may be doing right now, thanks to a group of Westwood High School seniors who descended on their backyard last summer. Guided by a Green Corn Project dig-in leader, the students spent four hot hours planting an edible garden at the Cruz’s home in Garfield, a small town east of the airport.  

The students learned about double-digging and geometric planting, but also about the kind of difficult events that can derail lives. When Lydia Cruz told her story, they listened. 

“Without your health,” she said, “everything can change in an instant.”

That instant came seven years ago, when Juan, then a construction superintendent, found that his left arm had grown too weak to roll up the window of his truck. His condition worsened over the next two years, until doctors finally diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition.

Though only in his mid-40s, Juan deteriorated quickly, often losing control of his limbs and struggling as his body unaccountably froze up. Eventually, Lydia had to help him rise from a chair, turn and even to sit up. Once 250 pounds, Juan lost almost a hundred pounds in one month. By then, all his nutrition came from a tube implanted in his stomach.

“We went from a two-income household to a one-income household to a no-income household,” Lydia said. “I had to stop working to care for Juan around the clock.”

Life changed again when Juan’s neurologist implanted electrodes in both lobes of his brain, connecting wires to a device intended to operate not unlike a pacemaker.

“When the doctor turned on the pacer, it was a new Juan,” Lydia marveled. “He could move his body!”

Though he still tires easily, Juan is recovering—enough that he sometimes takes over cooking chores. On the day the Cruz’s garden was built, he served the hungry teenagers generous portions of his mother’s secret carne asada recipe. In exchange, the students offered the Cruzes a chance at food independence and healthy eating. The neurologist had recommended plenty of blueberries and fresh vegetables—including kale, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, beets and carrots—and all found their way into the new garden.

“We are so appreciative of the garden,” Lydia told the Green Corn crew. “Now we’ll be able to grow things that we can’t even afford to buy.”

When it was time for a picture, she posed happily with the teens in front of the newly planted earth. Juan was absent—he’d fallen asleep on the couch, tired out from cooking.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lydia said. “He’s already done so much.”