Group calls on families to grow ‘Gardens of H.O.P.E.’

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — An organization sharing the rewards of gardening with students is now bringing its mission to backyards across Kent County because of COVID-19.

This is the fifth season for H.O.P.E. Gardens — a group whose acronym rings clear with purpose: helping other people eat.

(A girl smiles as she holds an apple during a H.O.P.E. Gardens field trip in 2018. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

“When my husband was a teenager… he became homeless. And it would be like a couple of days before he could find food or get some food. And that’s kind of when this all kind of burst in his heart. (He) was like, ‘Someday I want to teach people how to grow food so nobody has to go hungry,” explained H.O.P.E. Gardens Executive Director Julie Brunson.

She says her mother also faced challenges as a single parent with seven kids, which set Brunson on this path.

“My heart wants to help people not to have to wonder where their food’s going to come from. And so we’re kind of moving from food just to food security, to food sovereignty where people have control of what they grow and know where their food comes from and nobody can tell them when they can eat, what they can eat, what they’re going to get to eat. You know, they can choose for themselves,” she explained.

(A H.O.P.E. Gardens volunteer guides a student along a row of kale at South Elementary School in Wyoming in 2019. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

LESSONS IN GROWTH

Those lessons were happening in gardens and afterschool programs at dozens of schools scattered throughout Kent County until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Children would learn how to grow plants from seed, harvest the produce, prepare it to eat and even gather and repackage the seeds to share with rival schools.

(A girl stands in the garden at West Elementary School in Wyoming. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

“We all don’t have green thumbs when we’re born. You know, we learn it, and we learn it by failing (and) asking people,” said Brunson.

It’s also been a learning experience for Brunson.

“A little girl — probably 7 or 8, just the sweetest little girl — (I) sat next to her and she really wanted to know something. And she was like, ‘I really want to bake those pumpkin seeds… can you tell me how to do it with a microwave?’ And I was like, ‘You can put it in the stove (oven), you know?’ She’s like, ‘No, we don’t have a stove,’” Brunson recounted. “Something about that just kind of hit me. I think most people don’t realize that there are kids and families that don’t have a stove. You know, you live in a hotel or (are) homeless.

“It’s very important to see families and let them know that they’re seen and heard and be there to lift them up. We all have had hard times,” she added.

SOWING SIGNIFICANCE WITH ‘GARDENS OF H.O.P.E.’

Brunson said that with classrooms closed, the group is now focusing on a long-term goal by trying to recreate the success of “victory gardens” during both world wars.

A September 1943 photo provided by the Grand Rapids Public Library Archive Collection shows a gardener in the midst of his “victory garden” during World War II.

“They asked families and schools to have gardens to feed, you know, to feed the community. And it worked. And it happened. And it was amazing,” Brunson explained. “So we’re starting something called Gardens of H.O.P.E. and we’re asking families to start home gardens.”

(Students of Parkview Elementary School in Wyoming harvest cucamelons in 2018. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

>>PDF: Michigan State University Extension growing calendar

The organization is getting a $15,000 grant to make it happen.

H.O.P.E. Gardens plans to use the money to create garden kits for families, starting with program participants. The group is looking for volunteer carpenters to build garden beds and deck containers included in the kits.

“I think we all can do something. And we all have significance. Every little seed, every little person, has significance,” said Brunson.

HAPPINESS FROM DIRT

Gardens yield more than produce and flowers. A 2007 study found contact with a particular bacterium in soil can act as an antidepressant and research has found time spent outdoors can lower your blood pressure and improve your relationships, among other things.

A study published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also showed people with less exposure to nature as children have “significantly worse” mental health issues as adults.

(A boy smiles as he holds a sunflower at Parkview Elementary School’s garden in Wyoming in 2019. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

Brunson said happiness also comes from eating and even seeing what you’ve grown.

“At one of the schools, Parkview, I asked one of the kids, ‘What’s your favorite thing about the garden?’ And he said, ‘When I feel really sad in school, I ask if I can go to the bathroom, just so I can look out the window and look at the sunflowers ‘cause it makes me feel happy,’” Brunson recalled. “You know, that kind of stuff just touches you.”

CARRYING ON THE MISSION

Although classrooms are closed, about a dozen H.O.P.E. Gardens will still grow at the following locations:

(Volunteers smile while transporting some of West Godwin Elementary School’s summer harvest to a food truck. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)
  • Wyoming Regional Center
  • Wyoming Intermediate School
  • Wyoming Junior High School
  • Parkview Elementary School
  • West Elementary School
  • Oriole Park Elementary School
  • Gladiola Elementary School
  • West Godwin Elementary
  • North Godwin Elementary
  • South Elementary School
  • Countryside Elementary School

The organization is also working with school districts to mail packets of seeds collected by kids and donated by the Kent District Library seed library to more than 600 Wyoming students and children who participate in the program. Included are grow journals to track their plants’ progress.

>>Online: Map of Michigan seed libraries

H.O.P.E. Gardens is also harnessing its YouTube channel to teach budding green thumbs.

“The garden is not just food, it’s people,” said Brunson. “The basic need of every human is food, but we see the garden as building relationships with people, with children. And when they get to know where the food comes from and they grew with themselves, there’s the sense of pride.”

(Three boys proudly hold their pumpkins. Photo courtesy: H.O.P.E. Gardens)

TRACKING CORONAVIRUS