Growing Whole with a Little Help

By / Photography By E. S. Bruhmann | September 01, 2011
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Whole Foods employee and Healing Place residents
Whole Foods employee Kelly Lewis, front, works with Healing Place residents (from left to right) Allena Tevis, Katina Richardson, Erin Wheeler and Ashley Sims

Market team helps women’s refuge follow garden path

The Healing Place Women and Children’s Campus is a rehabilitation center housing women overcoming addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. The campus is situated on a wide, deep former asphalt parking lot on the southeast corner of 15th and Hill streets in Louisville’s West End.

When employees (called “team members”) of Whole Foods visited the center in December 2009 to deliver a holiday dinner, those eight acres were a blank slate, topped with fill dirt and rocks and capable of growing nearly nothing, as the gray trunks and bare branches of several small, dead trees attest.

The Whole Foods team met operations director Stephanie Schaeffer, who is responsible for the center’s meals. “She was struggling on a set budget to feed her clients healthy food,” says Tim Roethgen, Whole Foods’ marketing team leader. There was Schaeffer, explaining the lack of nutritious food that could support the women’s recovery; there were the visitors, representing a store that sells “the finest natural and organic foods available,” according to its website. A partnership seemed imminent.

The Whole Foods Market mission supports “Whole Food, Whole People, Whole Planet,” and encourages its employees to “step out the back door of each of our stores to support food banks, sponsor neighborhood events and donate to local nonprofit groups,” according to the website.

Donating food is usually the first level of giving, says Roethgen, “and we still do that.” But dropping food off at a remote location doesn’t provide lots of satisfaction. “Team member happiness is a core value” of the company, he says. “Dropping off food, the story doesn’t make it back to the store.” The workers don’t feel invested, resulting in less happiness. Whole Foods management was looking for a way “to do something more than a one-off.

“The idea of doing a garden at a women’s shelter hadn’t occurred to us,” says Roethgen. But the holiday dinner in 2009 sealed the deal. “Right off the bat, we connected with the clients.”

Whole Foods committed to providing volunteers and support to build a garden in spring 2010. Volunteers started by building circles delineated by rocks in which perennial flowers like salvia and pinks were planted (these round gardens are referred to as “wheels that heal”). Ten raised beds followed. Scores of volunteers from GE helped Whole Foods employees build the beds; Foxhollow Farm Center donated yards of compost to fill them and biodynamic compounds to improve the garden’s productivity.

Whole Foods donated food for a fundraiser, and asked their vendors to donate other supplies. With these donations, employee volunteers held a “Giving Grill” at the store, selling hot dogs and hamburgers to shoppers, raising about $1,000 to buy materials, equipment and plants.

The raised beds, some covered in plastic this past winter to allow indoor growing, have allowed operations manager Schaeffer to add fresh, locally grown strawberries to the meals for 200 women who eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Healing Place. Peas, beets, greens and a variety of other produce have been harvested. Vegetable plants started in the hoop houses were sold at Whole Foods to raise more money for the project.

But there are benefits that can’t be quantified.

In addition to Whole Foods employees, the garden is staffed by residents at the center. All chores at the Healing Place are done by residents — security, laundry, cooking, maintenance — typically in four-week rotations. In spring 2010, garden work was added to the list of chores that needed doing.

Erin Wheeler, a former steel company sales manager who is recovering from alcohol addiction, was assigned to the garden in May. “To be honest, I wasn’t real happy about it,” she admitted. Wheeler, who has been at the Healing Place about six months and just rotated off garden duty, says the garden is the best work at the facility. “I almost meditate” while watering, weeding and harvesting. “It’s helped me in my recovery process,” she says.

Katina Richardson remembers that as a child she would sit on the porch with her mother and shell peas. “I never asked any questions about the garden,” during those times, she says. Now at the Healing Place for her second time, Richardson says, “I like coming out [to the garden] and having some place to be able to think.” In 2006, during her last residency, “they didn’t have a garden that we could come out and put our own love into.” She’s looking forward to sweet potato pie made from garden sweet potatoes.

For Allena Tevis, it’s about getting energy back. “I’m getting out of feeling lazy,” she said after the first week of her rotation. Though she’s not crazy about the heat, the garden work “is helping me exercise my body. Out of all the chores here, I like it the best.”

Ashley Sims has been at the Healing Place seven months and now supervises the garden team as part of her work. Both her stepfather and mother loved gardening, and she was more familiar with gardening than the other women. “But I’ve never had my own garden.” When her mother visited recently, she admired the Healing Place effort. “This garden kind of makes me closer to her,” says Sims, who sees it from her bedroom window every morning. “There’s a lot of peace and serenity out here.”

Kelly Lewis used to work the cheese counter at Whole Foods. But she’s also a Master Gardener, certified by the University of Kentucky extension service after a fairly rigorous training program. In December 2009, Lewis had skills and passion that weren’t being used selling cheese.

Last year, Whole Foods harnessed some of that expertise, assigning her part time hours to help build the garden. This year, the job is full time. Though she and Whole Foods have helped other groups build gardens — at St. Matthew’s Elementary, Community Montessori in New Albany and others — she says of the Healing Place garden, “this is my baby. Because it’s important. They need it. I need it.”

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