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'Workers in the Field' feeding the poor

By Jean Parietti

St. John Bosco gardeners honored for harvesting more than 5,000 pounds of produce last year

In 1994, Rita Kuklish looked around the grounds of St. John Bosco Parish, saw three acres of vacant land and envisioned a vegetable garden to feed the hungry.

Volunteers clean and bag produce after their weekly summer harvest. The crops are donated to the FISH Foodbank in Lakewood.
Volunteers clean and bag produce after their weekly summer harvest. The crops are donated to the FISH foodbank in Lakewood.  Photo: St. John Bosco

“She loves gardening and helping people,” said Kuklish’s husband, Steve. “She couldn’t see all this land go to waste, so we got a group of friends and we started,” he said.

That first year, the group built three raised beds and planted some vegetables. “We raised 700 pounds and we were delighted,” Rita Kuklish recalled. Over the years, the St. John Bosco Food Bank Garden has expanded to about 2,000 square feet. Last year, under Kuklish’s leadership, the group harvested more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables to benefit the local FISH Food Bank.

Kuklish and the rest of the St. John Bosco gardeners were honored recently with the first “Gardener of the Year” award given by the Pierce Conservation District’s Share the Harvest Program.

“They do phenomenal work and they’re just a great example of the potential of a little patch of land,” said program coordinator Micaela Cooley.

A teaching garden
Like any dedicated gardener, the St. John Bosco volunteers show up — rain or shine — for Thursday work parties that begin in February and go through the fall harvest. The group, known as Workers in the Field, averages 10 to 14 volunteers, most in their 70s and 80s, said Kuklish, who is 76.

“They work very hard at this. It encourages them to keep going,” she said.

Each weekly gathering begins with a prayer that Kuklish wrote, asking God’s blessing on their efforts to help the needy. On a recent Thursday, the gardeners were moving compost to replenish beds for planting, starting seeds in the greenhouse, planting young lettuce or working on the irrigation system.

Crops this year will include onions, tomatoes, sugar peas, turnips, carrots, beans cucumbers and beets, many planted in raised beds divided into 1-foot squares that maximize the harvest. Potatoes, squash and broccoli are planted in stacked-up tires.

“We’re also a teaching garden,” said Kuklish, who is a master gardener emeritus. “Anybody can stop by and we’ll give them advice. We’ve already made mistakes so they don’t have to.”

Phil Coates, who joined the garden crew about four years ago, said he likes doing something concrete to help others.

“Rather than writing a check … this is hands-on. It just feels right. Of course, I don’t say that when it’s raining,” he joked.

Despite those cool, rainy days, the gardeners say they enjoy the work and the camaraderie.

“I’ve made some special friendships that I would not have made otherwise,” said Pat Rogers, a six-year volunteer who Kuklish calls her “right-hand man.”

The Spirit at work
St. John Bosco parishioners have supported the garden in a variety of ways — a handful helped purchase a small greenhouse and many others have bought plants and garden items at special sales. Parishioners also donate excess produce from their own gardens; last year the tally was 340 pounds, Kuklish said.

The parish itself has allocated $1,000 each year to the garden the past few years, in addition to paying the garden’s water bill and building a tool shed, Kuklish said.
Although the amount of produce harvested is large for a community garden, the need is great, Kuklish said. At some local schools, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free lunches.

There’s plenty of room to enlarge the garden, “but then you run the risk of wearing people out,” she said. “We’d need at least five to six more people.”

However, new help in the garden is arriving from unexpected places. Members of the parish youth group will handle some chores this year. A young woman who lives nearby noticed the garden and wants to volunteer. And Kuklish just learned that a local organization’s wounded veteran program is looking for volunteer opportunities.

“I just can’t believe how the Holy Ghost works,” Kuklish said. “Every day you just don’t know what happens.”

March 21, 2013

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