Michael Barbieri rototills the garden.
Michael Barbieri rototills the garden.
Donating their savings to the Sister Maureen Joyce Center soup kitchen in Albany would have been too easy for two teenaged brothers from Menands - so they decided to grow vegetables for the center's meals and start an egg delivery program to raise extra money.

Michael Barbieri, 16, and his 14-year-old brother, Charlie, had served meals and helped with fundraisers for other organizations, but they sought a larger volunteer commitment. When family friend Rev. John Bradley, who oversees the ministry, asked the boys' parents for a donation, their mother saw an opportunity.

When the teens from St. Pius X parish in Loudonville toured the Arbor Hill soup kitchen last spring, they noticed a 40-by-40-foot vacant lot there, which their mother, Maria, described as a "tangle of weeds and debris."

They envisioned a garden replacing the mess. With help from a few adults, they took chainsaws to trees, tilled soil, fenced in the area and put up a sign. They then spent the summer unloading manure, experimenting with water systems, planting and weeding.

Their efforts yielded a cornucopia of squash, pole beans, spinach, herbs, potatoes, tomatoes and other produce.

Around the same time, the Barbieri family decided to order 20 laying hens so they could donate the eggs to the center. They'd raised hens before, but not that many. Then Michael and Charlie realized it was more cost-effective to purchase eggs for the center, so they instead launched a "subscription" service for their neighbors, who now sign up for 12 or 20 weeks of Sunday egg deliveries.

So far, they've sent $600 to Father Bradley from the egg proceeds.

The boys' friends don't think the daily chores of collecting eggs, letting the chickens out to graze in the backyard and refilling the hens' water and feed is at all strange for suburbanites.

"People love the eggs and compliment them," Michael said.

The birds make pretty good pets, too - especially Homie, the "funniest chicken in the world" with a "little feather in the back that sticks up," according to Ms. Scott-Barbieri. Homie has a tendency to run toward the Barbieris' home when the coop is open; the family once came home to find her inside the house, making herself comfortable in a dog bed.

"Chickens are fantastic," Ms. Scott-Barbieri said. "They're really fun."

The effort has also brought maturity to the teens; when Michael had to put a sick hen down, his mother recounted, "At one point he said, 'Mom, you can just go inside. I think I can handle this.'"

Next year, Michael and Charlie, respectively a junior and a freshman at Shaker High School, intend to spice up their garden's offerings. They also want to improve the watering system and soil quality and deal with fewer weeds.

Ms. Scott-Barbieri said her boys have learned invaluable lessons from their work with the Sister Maureen Joyce Center.

"They realize that people are people are people," she said. "They really committed to something and they watched it come together. If you work hard and keep showing up, people notice."

The neighbors of the soup kitchen noticed: "People were just lovely," the proud mother said. "They really responded to the idea that someone was doing something pretty in their neighborhood. I think it meant that, on some level, they matter."

Charlie, who's considering becoming a doctor, said the service gives him a "nice feeling." Michael, who's interested in wildlife management, added: "I think it's just important to be active and generous in your life - to live like a Catholic and not just talk about it."