Califonia Bountiful

Harvesting hope

May/June 2015 California Bountiful magazine

Garden program plants seeds for new beginnings

Donny Barrow harvests broccoli from a field at the Jesus Center Community Farm in Chico. Barrow has struggled with homelessness, but through the farm's internship program, is finding stability.

On a small plot of soil, Donny Barrow has begun to sow seeds for a new future.

Digging through the ground and pulling up weeds, spreading soil and compost, transplanting seedlings and planting seeds, Barrow has spent several weeks tending to what may look like a typical household garden.

The earth bursts with green sprouts of celery, carrots, radishes, kale, broccoli and lettuce. But the true harvest is not the vegetables—it is hope: hope that Barrow now has for future employment and a transition into stability.

For six months, Barrow has been receiving meals and services through the Jesus Center, a Chico-based resource that serves people struggling with homelessness and hunger throughout Butte County and the surrounding area. The center provides meals twice a day, hot showers and an overnight shelter for women and children.

Barrow has no permanent home and some nights he sleeps at a homeless shelter. But during the day, through a 2.2-acre community farm established by the center, he plants vegetables and harvests the produce, which is sold at an onsite farm stand and weekly farmers market.

The Jesus Center Community Farm hosts a weekly farmers market, and Farm Manager Jim Mathys works in the booth where local residents can come to purchase some of the farm's produce.

On-the-job training

The farm opened in 2014—on land leased from a generous local family for $1 per year—with the goal of providing job-training opportunities for those in need. Jesus Center guests are eligible to apply for three-month internships at the farm and must work a minimum of six hours per week. For that, they receive a stipend, which is spread out during that three-month period.

Supervised by Farm Manager Jim Mathys, interns are involved in every aspect of growing the food. The farm is primarily planted with produce, and interns learn how to grow each crop, as well as fundamentals of soil health and irrigation. This year's plans include adding fresh flowers to be sold from the Bloomin' Hope flower cart associated with the center. (See story below.)

The objective is for interns to gain experience that will help them obtain employment and eliminate their need to rely on the center's services.

"First and foremost, this is a job-training program for the homeless," Mathys said.

He said the skills learned here are transferable to jobs in landscaping or on small farms in the area. Plus, interns learn basic responsibilities that can benefit them at any future place of employment.

"What we're teaching are the 'soft skills' too," Mathys said. "We start with just showing up on time and being ready to work. It is learning the basics of finding and keeping a job. You have to be dressed properly. You have to show up when you say you will. You have to take directions. It's these skills that translate to any type of work, any type of job."

Michelle Heckel, right, and daughter Emeryn make regular visits to the weekly farmers market, held at the Jesus Center Community Farm.

Food and community

What Mathys also sees develop in the interns is a connection to their food. For people who largely have no security of knowing where their next meal will come from, the experience of working on the farm is transformative, Mathys said.

"One of the amazing things about growing vegetables, caring for them and the soil that they grow in, is you start to develop a deeper connection with your food. You start to understand a personal connection," Mathys said. "When interns leave here, they have the job skills, but they also have an idea of how to feed themselves, even from their backyard. You can grow a lot of your own food, even on a tight budget."

A stronger community relationship is developing as well, with the center's interns growing and then selling fresh vegetables to local residents at the farm stand and farmers market.

Shirley Campbell, who lives near the farm, stopped by one recent weekday afternoon. She said she used to enjoy gardening, but now lives in an apartment—and the center's farm gives her access to fresh-picked, hand-grown produce, even without her own plot of dirt.

Other residents enjoy the presence of the farm and the weekly farmers market, when the Jesus Center and other vendors assemble on a bare strip of ground between the garden rows. Neighbors stroll over from their homes, buying produce picked that same day from a field just steps away.

For Michelle Heckel and her 18-month-old daughter, Emeryn, market visits are a regular part of their week. As Emeryn toddled unsteadily near rows of lettuce, kale and celery, Heckel purchased broccoli from the center's booth.

"This broccoli is the best," said Heckel, who planned to use it for soup that evening. "We came here last week and bought some and steamed it. It's so fresh and you know your money is being spent well, going right into the hands that really need it."

The 2.2-acre farm is lush with broccoli, lettuce, arugula, onions and garlic, tended by interns, as well as members of the community, who are invited to work alongside interns.

A sense of place—and purpose

In fact, it was Donny Barrow's hands that picked Heckel's broccoli. A few hours before the market, with a quiet earnestness, Barrow meandered through the farm's rows, meticulously inspecting each plant to determine if the broccoli was ready to be harvested.

When he found a mature head of broccoli, he snipped it away from the plant and carefully placed it in a bucket.

Barrow works diligently, his passion for farming revealing itself, despite his reticent disposition. He doesn't share the circumstances that led to his homelessness, but seeing him here, it's apparent he has at least found a sense of place on the farm.

"Watching things that want to grow is one of the best parts," Barrow said, breaking his silence and gazing at the field. "Seeing things grow and being able to give that back to the community. To see what can come from just that little seed."

For Barrow and the other interns, the Jesus Center Community Garden plants a seed—an investment for growth. In equipping those who are homeless with relevant skills to enter the workforce, Mathys and the center want to help people like Barrow clear the weeds from their own lives and cultivate a new beginning.

And that in itself is a bounty that Mathys said goes beyond any tangible harvest.

Looking across the fields as Barrow works alongside other interns and community volunteers, Mathys smiles from under his big brimmed hat.

"Joy," Mathys said. "Joy springs up from the ground here."

Toni Scott

Bloomin' Hope flower cart

Lady Bird Johnson once said, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope."

Those words are the driving force behind Bloomin' Hope, a flower cart run by residents of two Chico-based women's shelters associated with the Jesus Center: Sabbath House and House of Hope. 

Shelly Watson, Jesus Center director of outreach, oversees the flower-cart venture, unveiled in early 2014 to help homeless women develop vocational skills. Watson has experience in the California floral business—dating back to her first floral-shop job at age 14—and flowers and floral design remain part of her life.

"I've always carried it with me," Watson said. "What I found was it was therapeutic; it helped me out financially and I learned that during the major holidays, shops are always looking for extra help and there are jobs available for someone to fill." 

Watson started the flower cart to give women at the shelters an opportunity to gain skills that could transfer to future employment. 

Currently, fresh flowers are bought from a Northern California wholesale flower market and assembled into bouquets by shelter residents. The bouquets are sold from the cart on special occasions, including Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Easter. The women have also created Thanksgiving centerpieces and have been hired to design floral arrangements for a summer wedding. 

The women also are learning how to interact with customers and set up and close out a cash box. 

The Jesus Center has plans to grow its own flowers on its community farm to then sell from the cart. Watson said that as the business grows, so does the confidence and hope within the women. 

"It's very empowering," Watson said. "The biggest goal is to empower women, to make them feel a sense of dignity and worth, and to give back to the community."

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