The GrassRoots Experience

Sidebar 1: Gallery

Richard Gambino has spent years combining his day job at Gambino Stonemasonry with his volunteer work at GrassRoots Garden in Eugene. Over the years, he has helped put in benches, drinking fountains, and in his latest project, the new floor in the outdoor kitchen. And while this crisp, late fall day will be his last visit to the garden, he hasn’t arrived yet. Volunteers, friends, and workers at the garden are all scrambling, tidying up the gardens and starting to cook early.

Most unusually, the cooking has started both in the outdoor garden and in the neighboring church, where a Hawaii themed party is being set up to honor the work Gambino has done at the garden and celebrate his upcoming move to Hawaii. Volunteers all work on various assigned projects to get the party started on time and chatter away with one another. Many are meeting for the first time, exchanging names, hugs, and mutual excitement. These volunteers, whose ages range from preschool school aged children to senior citizens, are brought together by their common appreciation for Gambino and the work that he has done for a place they all have come to love.

Sprawling out behind St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the GrassRoots Garden is always full of this sense of laughter and fun on Saturday mornings. While today most people are inside the church preparing for the party, this scene is virtually foreign to a place where people are more commonly seen working in piles of dirt than in indoor kitchens. Most fall days, volunteers don oversized canary yellow raincoats and dirt encrusted rain boots, not to avoid the Oregon rain but to rinse crops in a freestanding bright blue bathtub. The crops will all be packaged and sent to Food For Lane County, where they will be cooked into hot, fresh, locally grown food for those in need.

The GrassRoots Garden in Eugene has been a part of the Cal Young neighborhood for the past 18 years. It began as a collaboration between the Lane County Master Gardeners, Food For Lane County, a local food shelf and soup kitchen, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

The Master Gardeners who originally began volunteering at GrassRoots were looking for both a place to train people on gardening and a way to give back to the community. Food For Lane County had an interest in incorporating more fresh produce and hot meals into the services that they provide to the residents of Lane County, and St. Thomas’ had the land to donate, which helped get the project on its feet.

This community garden, which extends for two and a half acres of land, has continued to provide people in the community not only with freshly grown crops which are used in the local food shelf and soup kitchen, but also with a place to meet and build lasting community connections. Volunteers who come to the garden can drop in any Saturday and are welcome to stay for as long as they want, but 60 or so of these volunteers have continued to come on a regular basis for more than 4 years, according the garden’s coordinator and Master Gardener, Merry Bradley.

Bradley’s love of gardening is what brought her to the Master Gardeners program 10 years ago, and what has in turn led her to become the coordinator at GrassRoots Garden. What she is doing now though is much bigger than gardening or providing food, she is helping to build a community with these long-time volunteers. “It is a gift to work here… to get to live my passion, which used to be gardening and now it’s community,” she says.

Her job as garden coordinator is not only to keep the garden and its produce running smoothly, it is also to make sure that she has created an atmosphere that makes volunteers want to return year round. ”There is a nice sense of family and connection here,” Bradley says.
Looking back over the decade she has spent working at GrassRoots, Bradley sees the impact that the garden has made in a series of singular memories. “Some are moments of clarity and growth, like why are we here?” she says. “I once had two students volunteering here, and one was trying to explain to the other what cauliflower was” she adds, highlighting one of these moments of clarity.

The number of regular volunteers at GrassRoots in 1999 was about 10, a number which has grown tenfold in the past decade. Along with the 100 or so regular volunteers, more than 2,900 people volunteered more than 23,400 hours in 2008 alone, a number which Bradley expects to see increase as the 2009 data becomes available. Volunteers who work at the garden include at least “120 different school, church, business and service groups,” according to Bradley. Regular volunteer groups include fraternities, students of all ages, and once a week people with special needs. Some volunteers however choose not to come with a group or for a class, but for the pleasure of playing in the dirt.

Stephanie Turco is one of these regular volunteers, who despite a hectic college schedule, makes a point of coming out whenever she has the time. “I used to be able to come out here three or four times a week during the summer,” she says, “but now I can only come out on Saturdays when I’m not too busy with school.” Even with less time to devote to the garden, it continues to be a place where Turco enjoys spending her time, even if it means giving up sleeping in late on a Saturday morning.

“We want people to have fun here,” says Laura Mabee, another long-time volunteer, “We don’t want people to leave thinking ‘I did community service, but it sucked’… They won’t want to come back.” Mabee comes to the garden even on freezing winter days, layered in four pairs of pants to keep warm, to greet any volunteer groups who decide to come in.

The garden beds are freshly mulched, and the few volunteers finishing up outside are readying for the winter. The rest are inside the church, putting finishing touches on the party. “Merry’s a little more stressed today than usual,” one volunteer says, “She just wants everything to be perfect for Richard’s party.” After all, by now he is more than just a random volunteer, he is a friend and family member. Inside the church, people are setting out the food, running through last minute practices of hula dances, song performances, and slide shows of Gambino’s contributions to the garden. As a final preparation, everyone is changing from their dirty garden clothes into Hawaiian shirts, and donning leis for the party. Everyone is settling into seats, and waiting for the guest of honor to arrive.

Sidebar 2: Food For Lane County information
-1 in 5 people in Lane County receive help from FFLC
-roughly half are either children or senior citizens
-almost 1/3 of recipients are children under 17
-95% of FFLC resources are dedicated to food distribution
-over 80% of these resources are for emergency food programs
-FFLC offers volunteer hours for those wishing to help with hunger in the community

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