Teamwork Brings Yelm Community Garden to Life, With Veteran Support
You could say that the first phase of building the Yelm Community Garden went off with all the precision of a military exercise. That’s because, to a degree, it was exactly that. A group of nearly 20 veterans from The Mission Continues gathered at Yelm City Park on January 16 to build garden beds, transport soil and construct trellises for the project, which will be completed by May.
The Mission Continues is a nationwide nonprofit that deploys veteran volunteers to work alongside nonprofit partners and community leaders to improve educational resources, tackle food insecurity, and foster neighborhood identity. Tacoma Platoon leader Jacob Kobielusz says the project was a good fit for his organization. “Food security and making sure that people can learn how to grow their own food are important,” he says. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to get involved in a smaller community and give back.”
In February, local volunteers from Yelm non-profit Bounty for Families (BFF) will complete construction and between now and May, other community groups, including Yelm High School’s FFA program, will join forces to create pathways, trellises and possibly a mural. The City of Yelm has provided the space in Yelm City Park at no cost and will also be contributing electricity and water to maintain it.
The idea for a community garden has been floating for nearly a decade, according to BFF Board Secretary Heidi Smith. “We had several board members who were passionate about the idea, but it never quite got off the ground,” she explains. Then, in November 2019, Nora White of Thurston Conservation District (TCD) contacted BFF about a possible collaboration. When TCD won a $50,000 grant through the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) to do urban agriculture in Yelm, the concept began to gain momentum.
“In addition to supporting landowning farmers,” says White, education and outreach specialist at TCD, “we need to find ways to contribute to all different kinds of people with different needs and accessibility. Community gardens and school gardens are a distinct way that TCD can contribute to a healthy local food system through education and technical resources, so this project is a good fit for us.” TCD is funding technical expertise and logistical support.
White connected with Beau Gromley, community food solutions manager at Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB), an Olympia nonprofit that offers programs to build gardens at people’s homes or in partnership with local organizations. GRuB is supplying the lumber, soil and materials for the garden build with guidance from Gromley, who oversees the work parties. Gromley, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Army, manages GRuB’s Victory Farm and GRuB Garden Project, which connect former service members with gardening.
“Projects like this are what GRuB does,” he explains. “Our mission is growing healthy food, people and community. Personally, over the years I’ve gotten so much therapeutic value out of both gardening and community building. I look forward to being able to connect the young veterans in our programs with this project so they can sit in that garden and do some social and emotional healing in nature.”
FFA students as well as other Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs at Yelm High School will also be involved. The group has already been a regular presence at the Yelm Farmers Market, hosting a booth aimed at 5- to 12-year-olds enrolled in the market’s Power of Produce Kids Club. Now, FFA advisors are in discussions with the other project partners about how to get their students further involved, not only in the building process but the planning and maintenance aspects.
“We have a community garden at the high school that we’ve already been doing for many years,” says Yelm Community Schools CTE Director Teri Pablo. “Our academic programs in the greenhouse and landscape design and our shop classes all have opportunities for students in those programs to apply their skills on an ongoing basis. It’s a natural extension to participate in the community and give students another opportunity to demonstrate their leadership and commitment.”
Chelsey Montgomery, BFF board member, contributed the design for a garden shed that will store tools, materials and seeds. She’s currently raising funds for the shed’s construction by selling plants from her greenhouse. Montgomery operates a gardening blog with several thousand followers who she hopes will be inspired to participate in the project. “Gardening has changed my life,” she says. “It’s a therapy. I’m so passionate about growing your own food, knowing where it comes from and understanding what we’re putting into our bodies.”
One of the key financial backers of the project has been the Nisqually Tribe. The Nisqually Charitable Fund donated $12,000 to BFF toward the Yelm Community Garden, support has been instrumental in getting the project off the ground. “The Tribe’s contribution gave us a solid foundation for moving forward and engaging with groups like the Thurston Conservation District,” says Smith. “We’re using those funds to install interpretive signs for native plants that will be in both English and Lushootseed and to create an ADA elder accessible walkway. We are looking forward to identifying more ways to collaborate with the Nisqually Tribe as the garden project evolves.” Mom’s Club of Yelm has also contributed $500 toward the project.
The city’s backing and resources have been critical, according to Smith. “Being able to use such a gathering place at the Yelm City Park for this project is invaluable,” she says. “The city has been on board from the beginning, and patient with us as we had some growing pains in the course of getting to where we are now. We’re very excited about the way this collaboration has developed.”
Once complete, the garden will serve as a gathering place for hands-on lessons in gardening, soil health, native plants, cooking with produce, and much more. During the Farmers Market season, children in the PoP program will have opportunities to learn about growing their food, while their parents can connect with GRuB to explore the possibility of having home gardens installed.
City of Yelm Public Works Director Cody Colt has been involved in monthly meetings with the team, meetings which Yelm Mayor J.W. Foster also attends when possible. Colt looks forward to a future date when all the different elements within the park tie together for local families. “I can imagine going down to the farmers market, grabbing some vegetables, walking out to the garden and down to the veterans’ memorial as the kids run out to the splash park or the playground,” he says. “You could spend a full day just at the city park. This project is one piece of the puzzle that is so important.”