Fayette County

Domestic violence victims raise garden that raises hope

Angela Wall, left, Gwen Clark, center, and Sandy Boyd peeled tomatoes at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program shelter Wednesday. Shelter residents are invited to work on a number of farm projects.
Angela Wall, left, Gwen Clark, center, and Sandy Boyd peeled tomatoes at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program shelter Wednesday. Shelter residents are invited to work on a number of farm projects.

Sandy Boyd and the other women who live at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program shelter see a lot of hope in a head of cabbage and a tomato picked fresh from the shelter's garden.

Residents of the facility that sits on 40 acres in eastern Fayette County are beginning to feed themselves from a garden that is the first phase of a proposed agriculture and marketing initiative. Within five years, the initiative could make area domestic violence victims more self-sufficient, according to officials.

But the project has hit a road block: The program did not win $50,000 from a contest in June that was sponsored by Pepsi. Officials had hoped to use the money to hire a farmer to turn the property into a working farm and manage volunteer workers.

Diane Fleet, assistant director of the domestic violence program, is heading the garden project. She said the program needs to hire a farmer if it is to move forward.

A farm manager could spur a significant change so that "it's not just a shelter with a farm, but the farm is the shelter," said Fleet.

"We think we could hire a full-time farmer for $35,000 to $40,000," said Darlene Thomas, the center's executive director.

With some tweaking, the project could integrate many of the shelter's programs, said Fleet: healing and self-care, self-sufficiency, credit repair and marketing and finance.

Meanwhile, the shelter's residents made spaghetti sauce and salsa from the garden's tomatoes one night last week for dinner. They've been eating a lot of cole slaw this summer. And within the next several months, they hope to start selling their flowers around Lexington.

The families living at the center aren't required to work in the gardens or to cook the produce, but many do.

Sandy Boyd, a resident who has been working in the garden, said that law enforcement officials guided her to the shelter when she was abused a few weeks ago while traveling through the area on a trip from Mississippi to Ohio.

Boyd said she is now planning on settling in Lexington.

"I guess you would call it a healing process," Boyd said of her time working in the garden. "It took a lot of stress off."

Angela Wall of Lexington said she has been at the shelter for two weeks and hopes to soon be living independently. She has been cooking vegetables from the garden for the residents' meals.

"If you get in the kitchen you feel better about yourself," said Wall. "It's therapeutic for me to cook."

Gwen Clark of Harrodsburg said she came to the center two weeks ago and hopes to use her time there to begin a new life and perhaps go to college.

In the meantime, she said she will help in the garden and cook the produce "to occupy my mind."

Officially called the Three Sisters Project, it is a collaboration of the domestic violence program, the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center and the University of Kentucky's Violence Intervention Program.

The farm has 16 raised beds containing vegetables and herbs.

The project recently acquired a beehive and Thomas said they hope to start selling honey, along with flowers.

Shelter officials are seeking advice and help from many local groups.

The local chapter of a group called Architecture for Humanity is designing a master plan for the 40 acres.

And Fleet said that donations from BB&T Bank officials will help bring to the project a hoop building. That is a steel framed, polyethylene fabric-covered building that would allow shelter officials to do some growing year round.

Jim Embry, a community garden activist, has built and helped to plant the raised gardens on the farm.

Church garden groups, the University of Kentucky and state agriculture officials have all been consulted.

But what the program needs now, shelter officials said, are volunteer workers and donations that can help hire a farmer and supplement the program in other ways.

"None of us are farmers," said Thomas. "We can weed a garden here or there. But we are going to need that expertise."