On a recent August morning, Rhonda Yarnell was bent over, gently pulling cherry tomatoes off a vine at Berea Urban Farm.
It was just after 9 a.m. and quiet, except for the low hum of Cicadas and the occasional meowing of the farm cat, Zorro.
Yarnell, 43, tasted one. Warm and full of flavor, she handed one to Nikka Dykes, 31, who was wearing a shirt that said, “Onions not opioids.”
“Isn’t that good?” Yarnell asked.
Dykes took a bite and reached for another. She and Yarnell, along with nearly 30 other women in addiction recovery, planted these tomatoes and a bevy of other produce earlier this year on the roughly one-acre farm. They did so as some of the first graduates of Harvesting Hope, a grassroots educational and vocational program for women enrolled in Liberty Place, a long-term substance abuse recovery program in nearby Richmond.
Kentucky has been one of the states hit hardest by the drug crisis, which has killed more than 6,600 people since 2014 — the state’s fatal overdose rates dropped in 2018 for the first time in five years — and has affected thousands more. Many with a history of addiction also carry with them criminal charges, which makes finding employment challenging, exacerbating the already rocky road to recovery.
Harvesting Hope founders Cheyenne and Richard Olson understand this. Former college educators, the couple owns and lives on the farm, a stone’s throw from downtown and nearby Berea College, where they in 2005 started Sustainable Berea.
The idea for Harvesting Hope was planted in 2018 out of a desire to lend a hand to local women struggling with opioid use disorder and help reduce the stigma of addiction, especially in the workplace, said Cheyenne, who got the idea after a documentary screening one night in 2017 on the epidemic’s effect in Eastern Kentucky.
The goal is to position each graduate for a life of sobriety and gainful employment, the Olson’s said. Using a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and money raised through fundraising, they pooled their urban farm resources to start the program a year ago. Since then, nearly 30 women from Liberty Place have graduated. Last week, they applied for a larger grant through the Department of Labor, which would allow the program to serve up to 60 women over the next two years and allow them to hire two graduates on the farm part-time.
“It is important for people working with the program to understand addiction and the many issues that need to be dealt with to be ready to enter the workforce and stay sober and employed,” Cheyenne said. “No one understands these issues more than a recovered addict.”
Yarnell, a self-described “chronic relapser,” gets it. “I have charges on my record where I didn’t ever feel like anybody would trust me,” she said. “I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
‘It just felt really good to accomplish something’
Harvesting Hope teaches the basics of farming, emphasizes the restorative nature of the physical work it takes to grow something to completion, and the value of providing that harvest to the community. But it also gives these women a chance to earn money, to become financially literate, learn about job opportunities, and to take classes through the New Opportunity School for Women.
Its tack toward job readiness is a model echoed by other addiction recovery programs across Kentucky.
Namely because gainful employment greatly reduces the chances of relapse for those in recovery, said Dr. Amanda Fallin-Bennett, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Nursing.
A steady job begets other successes. It allows one the freedom to choose to live in a safe and sober place, the ability to pay for insurance to access substance use disorder treatment, and it gives one a predictable schedule again, said Fallin-Bennett, who’s also the program director for Voices of Hope, a recovery support services organization in Lexington.
Criminal records, gaps in employment, or the stigma associated with drug use, however, can pose a threat to one’s marketability as an employee, she said.
That’s in part why larger business organizations, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, are touting the benefits of employing people in recovery.
“People who are in recovery actually take less unscheduled time off than their peers, and they stay with employers at almost identical rates as their coworkers,” she said.
But what the program also offers is more intangible. And for most of these women, who’ve spent time in and out of jail, prison and other treatment programs, those offerings are just as, if not more important.
Liberty Place Program Director Alisha Wilhoit said the recovery program is based on a 12-step model. “We learn we’ve got to change everything about our previous thinking and actions,” she said. “In recovery, there’s a sense of, I’ve worked for this, so I’m going to work harder to keep it.”
Dykes better understands that now.
“You know, I couldn’t accomplish being a mother, I couldn’t be a good girlfriend. I just walked out on my family,” she said. A Somerset native, she’s been at Liberty Place since October. Dykes has two kids, but said she hasn’t been in their life regularly for about four years, as she was struggling with methamphetamine use.
“The last thing I accomplished was high school. That’s the last good thing I’ve done, is high school and this,” she said of Harvesting Hope.
“What I love about the farm, it just felt really good to accomplish something,” she said. “This program brought a lot of hope. And I’m hoping I might get a certificate for treatment. That’d feel real good, too,” she said.
‘I show up differently’
Yarnell’s road to recovery has been long and arduous.
A Pike County native, she has been using substances since she was a teenager: alcohol and pot slowly gave way to opioids and meth. Over the years, she’s spent time in jail for drug and non-drug related offenses, and she’s taken part in her share of treatment programs. There were intermittent periods of sobriety — a year here, a few years there — but nothing ever stuck, she said.
Along the way, she isolated herself. Most of her family stopped talking to her, and she stopped being a regular presence for her two boys, now 17 and 8, “because I keep doing this.”
But when she got to Liberty Place last October and enrolled in Harvesting Hope, something was different. She was trusted on the farm, given responsibilities, and held to account. She learned how to till soil and which crops should be planted when, how to manage her finances and how to self soothe through meditation. She started to recover.
Now, “if I tell you I’m going to do something, I do it,” she said. “My family, they’ve got to see the growth in me, because I show up differently for them now.”
When she graduated the four week program earlier this summer, so many of her relatives showed up, she said, they filled a whole row of seats. But her gains haven’t come without loss. In June, her oldest sister overdosed on fentanyl, a fully synthetic opioid responsible for the largest portion of the state’s overdose deaths.
On Labor Day, Yarnell will celebrate a year sober. And she plans to keep it that way, in part by staying in Berea after she leaves treatment and to keep working on the farm, where she tries to visit at least once a week.
“I didn’t see the beauty in anything before,” she said, starting to cry.
“I got to do all this. When we got here, none of this stuff was grew,” she said, motioning to vines and bushes, heavy with produce. “It was still just soil. We got to plant it, watch it grow. I got to harvest it.”