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Teens and adults feed hungry through Fatima garden

By Virginia de Leon

In a vegetable garden near their church, young people and other members of Our Lady of Fatima parish work together to cultivate both the soil and a spirit of community, and to help feed the hungry in Spokane.

fatima garden
Youth harvesting at the Fatima Garden of Hope

For the past five years, youth group members along with parishioners have harvested hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, peppers, beans, carrots and other fresh produce for the House of Charity, a homeless shelter in downtown Spokane. Sponsored by Catholic Charities, the House of Charity serves more than 66,000 hot meals each year to people who live on the streets as well as to the elderly living in downtown housing facilities.

The fruits and vegetables grown by members of Fatima, at 1517 E. 33rd Ave. in Spokane, helped nourish people who otherwise would have nothing to eat. For some, it’s the only opportunity to eat fresh, healthful, organic produce.

 “You see gratitude in their faces,” said Fatima youth minister Dan Glatt, describing the experience of delivering crates of vegetables each week to the House of Charity.

For the youth and other parishioners, the garden is a way to be “part of the solution,” he said, and “do social justice in the world.”

Youth at the South Hill church came up with the idea for the “Garden of Hope” about six years ago after the youth group volunteered to help with the Bishop’s Poor Man’s Meal at the House of Charity.

Students met poor people who eat at the shelter.  They also heard stories of generosity—how community donors enable the shelter to serve tens of thousands of free, hot meals with an annual food budget of roughly $8,000.

As the youth reflected on their experience, they started asking: How can we help the hungry in our community? What more can we do besides volunteering at the Poor Man’s Meal? Looking at undeveloped church property north of All Saints Catholic School, they came up with the idea of planting a garden to grow fresh vegetables.

The Rev. Jim Kuhns, Fatima’s pastor then, supported the youth and encouraged them to pursue their plan. Early in the spring of 2003, Dan and the students bought seeds and other material, brought tools from home and started planting. Their first garden consisted of raised beds on 640 square feet. Fifteen teens planted carrots, tomatoes, radishes and other fruits and vegetables that were easy to grow, Dan said.

Every Sunday when they gathered as a youth group, they spent about 45 minutes weeding, mulching and tending to the garden. Mid-week, Dan watered the plot before going to work at Fatima.

By mid-August 2003, the students harvested several boxes of vegetables each week and took them to the House of Charity. Before the first frost, they harvested nearly 1,000 pounds of produce—carrots, tomatoes, radishes and other vegetables.

Growing food for people who often go hungry and lack access to fresh fruit and vegetables gave students hope and empowered them to realize they could make a difference, said Dan.
“They realized there were other ways to help besides writing a check,” he said.

Positive feedback from Catholic Charities and the House of Charity encouraged the youth to continue their efforts. The next year, the students received a $500 grant from the Catholic Foundation and a small donation from the annual collection of Operation Rice Bowl during Lent. With these funds, they bought starter plants and expanded the garden by preparing a second plot on the church’s vacant land.  In this new 16-by-32-foot space, they grew more vegetables including nine varieties of peppers. It was another successful year even though a marmot reduced their harvest of jalapeno peppers and habanero chilies.  The marmot left non-spicy varieties alone.

By the third year, the Garden of Hope grew with a third plot.  In 2005, the youth more than tripled the number of pepper plants from 16 to about 50, increased the tomato yield and added new vegetables including green beans and purple carrots—a novelty for House of Charity diners.

This summer, the students diversified the garden by planting okra, eggplant and broccoli and by continuing to tend an 8-by-16-foot patch of strawberries they started last year.  The garden’s yield also included more than 100 pounds of tomatoes, 60 pounds of beans and several boxes of spaghetti squash and cantaloupe.

The House of Charities used some of the produce to make a vegetable soup served at the Poor Man’s Meal in October.

The Rev. Ty Schaff, Fatima’s pastor since 2006, has a new vision for a quiet, reflective space in the gardens, adding a pathway, an area for reflection and a small amphitheatre. Responsibility for tending the garden now extends to more Fatima parishioners. In addition to 10 teens, who regularly work on the garden, about six parish families come regularly to help weed, water and mulch.  Members have donated funds for tools, a rototiller and supplies such as seeds and manure.

Fatima parishioner Rich Peplinski dug a trench for an irrigation system. Ryan Senger, a 16-year-old parishioner at St. Peter’s and a member of Boy Scout Troop 431, hopes to create an entryway to the garden as part of his Eagle Scout project.

Dan and others envision growing fruit trees, raspberry bushes and more varieties of fruits and vegetables. They seek money to build a tool shed and a greenhouse so parishioners can plant seeds earlier in the spring instead of buying starter plants. Their dream is to continue expanding the garden to bring more food to the House of Charity. Now, the garden uses 1,800 of the 7,000-square-foot property.

 “By participating, parishioners and youth become part of the solution,” Dan said.

For information, call 747-7213.