Real Life in Opportunity Gardens

By Trish Woolbright

2017 has been the busiest season for Opportunity Gardens since it was founded in 2011. We have had more applications, more 2nd and 3rd year gardeners, more gardeners moving and needing assistance to rebuild and continue, and more gardens which are expanding…. everything is bigger and better!  With the beautiful, sunny weather we have sometimes built two gardens per day while also maintaining mentoring and relationships with all our other gardeners, old and new. It’s been difficult to get a breath lately to even appreciate how much work it is. Time flies when you’re having fun though, and it is fun! It’s hard, fun, and rewarding.

(By the time of publication, we had helped 47 NEW gardeners while continuing to work with 50 second and third year gardeners. We expect a pretty good sized graduation group this year!)

We’ve been sharing Opportunity Gardens stories lately to connect you to the families you help with your support, and I want to take a moment to get a little bit real because gardening, food, and hunger are all very real issues. Life is hard, gardening is not a passive activity, and poverty and all related issues make life even more difficult…which makes it even more important to tell the stories. I won’t deny that it feels awkward to share personal trials and joys that have been confided to me over the dirt.  However, these are my friends now, and I have their permission to tell you a bit about them so that we can make sure the program continues. I hope you can all connect in meaningful, respectful and creative ways. Our culture and times can be isolating and we are helping to make our yards, neighborhoods, and tables a bit more welcoming and abundant together.

I want to tell you a bit about what gardening is like in OG, what a typical season/day might bring, and some of why we love and are excited by it. This program means everything to a lot of people. If your life allows you to be able to empower others with support in the form of donations or time or goods, I’m very thankful and so are the Opportunity Gardeners.  Your support means the world to us!  But you also may not be aware of the daily struggle and why it’s such a big achievement to grow radishes, greens, and other veggies…. why it means so much to be able to do something for yourself on your own. I hope I can share a bit of that with you.

Feeding one’s family can be tricky. Many struggle with “What the heck is this? And how do I make it?” Time, money, access, and transport all come into play and can be barriers. On top of that, there are cultural and nutritional needs, allergies, and a multitude of food related diseases. And, of course, don’t forget Taste! FOOD IS GOOD and we love to eat delicious and nutritious things. Growing food ourselves, cooking with friends and family and neighbors, and feeling nourished and healthy can be our community’s roots. We can grow healthy together if given the opportunity.

Not every family has the same needs, and every yard is unique. I can’t do a package deal and drop it off, or build it for someone and leave. I can’t just pass out plants at a booth and hope it helps. Simply giving people things or doing the work for them does NOT help people make change. You must build relationships. You take the time to teach at someone’s individual pace, and you set them up with what they need to be successful. Everyone is different, and what one person needs for success is not what someone else may need. So, we meet people where they are with what they have, and we custom design their garden and mentoring plan. We take the time needed over a 3-year period help them learn to grow food independently.

The gardeners of Opportunity Gardens are a diverse community who are excited to garden and who want to feed their family and kids better. They want to eat better, and they want to feel better. Our gardeners are working towards this goal while they are also working several jobs, going to school, and maintaining a house. Some are raising children who are ill or have a mental or physical handicap. Many of our gardeners have a physical disability, and we work with them to find creative solutions so that we can make their gardens accessible. Sometimes a garden provides mental and emotional therapy to people with addictions, PTSD, or other mental illnesses.  It can also be a great place to have some alone time or to spend time with family. We are incredibly fortunate to garden with many international families who have been immigrants for school or work or who are refugees. Our international families teach us wonderful gardening skills and culinary traditions from their homelands. Gardening with previously incarcerated people and with those who have incarcerated loved ones makes us aware… and grateful… and patient. Our gardeners work multiple jobs, have large and small families, and are savvy, thrifty, and creative problem solvers. Their time is short, so gardening needs to be time accessible too. It can’t be too big or too complicated, and we must remember that everyone learns at a different pace and in a different way. We help them learn to garden through text messages, email, phone calls, in person visits, hands-on mentoring, our growing guide, Facebook, cook books, workshops, potlucks, and so much more. Our Garden Ambassadors and volunteers help us take the program a step farther.

Gardening isn’t easy, and we’re proud of our gardeners – who have found so much success in the face of hardship.  On top of whatever life has thrown their way, they face some of the worst soil conditions imaginable, weird placement in shady yards, burst water taps, and broken hoses. Sometimes you find glass in the soil… always… every day…. Glass. But still they persist, and they are rewarded with vegetables.  Sometimes my 3rd year gardeners, grow so much that they have to find ways to share it with their friends, families, and coworkers.  It’s a good thing we also teach food preservation!

Through all the health problems, the mental anguish, the people telling you that they can’t, we mentor. We get the appointments made and we work with our gardeners to teach them how to grow and cook their own food.

I want to make Opportunity Gardens available to absolutely as many people as I can. Our volunteers, donors, board, and staff have always fully supported this program, and the gardeners are all in and are dedicated to learning. It’s a successful program that is popular among gardeners. The effort behind it is just so amazing. Our goal this year is lofty, and we’ve faced some interesting challenges along the way. I’m tapping out my soil contacts and have had to switch lumber situations.  I’m using a tractor, a load handler, and our biggest truck to haul way more organic matter for more gardens than ever before. We have been pushing hard this year, to be honest, and because of that we may reach our goals. The best part is that we will get a whole lot of people growing a whole lot of food, and along the way they will be eating and sharing and experiencing a whole lot of interesting things while changing their lives and our community for the better.

When we sit down and take stock, looking through the notes and putting the data together, it shows that Opportunity Gardens is working. We want our gardeners to say, “I got this!” “I can feed my family now” “we garden together” “we have abundance”, and they do.  This is why we make the huge efforts to get the plants in the ground everywhere.

Every single time I put in a garden I have a neighbor come over to ask if they can have one too.

Every single time we have a successful gardener, they want to give back.


Because people in hard times know that it is important to help.

Because someone helped them.

Your help makes this possible. The ripple effects are huge. Your dollars and time and materials mean SO much to our gardeners. Thank you.

I hope you really understand the enormous meaning behind every square foot of the over 25,000 square feet of garden space we have created in Columbia through Opportunity Gardens. We don’t just give hope. Hope gives a person no agency for change. We give Opportunities. And that is where changes lives. Your help makes that possible.


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