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Growing food and hope for the homeless in Eau Claire

| Judy Berthiaume

Anyone visiting the community gardens this summer in downtown Eau Claire likely came across a group of novice gardeners — some wearing Blugold garb — trying to figure out how to make the most of their two plots of land.

At a glance, they looked like UW-Eau Claire students who were taking their pledge to “eat local” to a whole new level.

In reality, they were nursing students working to better the lives of people who are struggling with homelessness and food insecurity in Eau Claire.

Through the student-created Eau Claire “Farming Hope” project, Blugolds are planting and tending to their gardens alongside community members in need. The idea is to provide the homeless with nourishment as well as the kinds of skills that can help them improve their lives.

“It was a little scary at first because none of us knew a lot about gardening, but we had lots of people offering help and advice,” says senior nursing major Elisabeth York, one of the students who helped establish the program in Eau Claire. “The plan is for us to work alongside people who are struggling so they can help us plant, tend to the garden and watch it grow.”

The hope is that as they work in the gardens, people who may have been unlucky in life will build their vocational skills, and develop their problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills so they are better prepared to get a job and improve their lives, York says.

While the Eau Claire “Farming Hope” program aims to help local community members, the project itself actually got its start on a farm in El Salvador.

A nursing immersion trip took students to Central America, where they met an inspiring El Salvadoran farmer, Maria Trinidad, who also runs an orphanage, hostel and soup kitchen.

Years ago, Trinidad told the students, she brought a troubled boy to her farm and asked him to help her tend the crops. The experience was life-altering for the boy, who eventually went on to become a doctor.

Since then, she’s regularly brought struggling youth and young adults to her farm, trusting that working the land and learning skills will help them grow in ways that will encourage them to build healthier lives.

Trinidad calls her program “Farming Hope.”

While immersed in El Salvador, the nursing students do more than observe — they, too, get their hands dirty by working on Trinidad’s farm. In the spring, the visiting Blugolds help with planting and in the fall they’re part of the harvest.

“Working on the farm is therapeutic,” says Meghan Pasineau, a senior nursing major who also is among the founders of the Eau Claire “Farming Hope” initiative. “You get people in the sun, working hard and seeing success when things grow. And you give them hope and meaning when the food they helped grow and harvest goes to the soup kitchen and orphanage. Being part of it for just a little while was inspiring.”

Blugolds in El SalvadorSo when their El Salvadorian hosts shared that their dream is that “Farming Hope” be replicated around the world, the Blugolds immediately took action.

“We were sitting around the dinner table talking about their dream when someone in our group said ‘why not in Eau Claire,’” says York. “Before we left the table that night we already had a Facebook page set up and the start of a plan.

“We saw firsthand how the soup kitchen and the farm fit together so we knew we wanted to replicate that here.”

When they returned to campus, they formed the “Farming Hope Eau Claire” student organization at UW-Eau Claire and began the work of turning their vision into a reality.

Among their first steps was to find community partners, places that already were working to meet the needs of the homeless and others with food insecurities.

Through their outreach, they connected with Positive Avenues, a day shelter in downtown Eau Claire that is part of Lutheran Social Services. The nonprofit shares a building with The Community Table, making it an ideal “Farming Hope” partner because the food grown through the program could easily be shared with their neighbors upstairs, Pasineau says.

When the students first approached Positive Avenues about the “Farming Hope” concept, she was intrigued yet a little skeptical, says Anneke Brainerd, a Wisconsin certified peer specialist at Positive Avenues. The population served by the day shelter can be challenging and hard to motivate so volunteers often become quickly discouraged, Brainerd says.

“But these nursing students came here and they didn’t even flinch,” Brainerd says. “They listened and engaged with our guests, and they’ve worked hard to get people involved. They’re going to be excellent nurses because they already are comfortable interacting with those we serve, whom many people aren’t even aware exist here. They’ve shown our guests that they do care about them, and that can be huge for these individuals.”

With community partners on board, through conversations and presentations the students shared their vision for “Farming Hope” with the people served by the Eau Claire community organizations.

“They liked the idea though they were a little hesitant to commit to it,” York says. “But for our first year, we considered it a big success. Some people were reserved but still excited, and some were curious.”

Among those working in the garden during the summer months was a woman who was living at the Sojourner House, a homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire. She came to the gardens a handful of times to work alongside the students.

“She has since moved into a home, gotten a job and is talking about going to school,” York says. “It was awesome to get to know people like her, people who we wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to talk to.”

Dr. Jill Hecker Fernandes, the assistant professor of nursing who leads the UW-Eau Claire nursing immersion trip to Central America, says she’s inspired by the students’ efforts to replicate the El Salvador program in Eau Claire.

“The students decided this was a way to bring El Salvador to Eau Claire and be an influence in our local community, which continues to struggle with homelessness of families and individuals,” Hecker Fernandes says. “I truly know that this is possible through this project.”

In addition to working in the fields, Maria Trinidad, the lead farmer in El Salvador, also teaches homeless participants how to make products including soap, shampoo and hibiscus tea leaves for sale in local and foreign markets.

With that in mind, students decided that the Eau Claire “Farming Hope” project also will not end when the weather turns chilly.

With this year’s planting season behind them, the students are continuing to look for opportunities to connect with, support and empower the people who depend on Positive Avenues and other local organizations for food and shelter. For example, the students are using the tomatoes they grew to teach the people at the day shelter how to make salsa, and they are planning to offer them basic cooking classes.

Painted flower potsThey also are trying their hand at indoor gardening, working with the guests at Positive Avenues to grow herbs in small pots, pots that were brightly painted by the guests.

Some of the painted flower pots were auctioned off as part of a fundraising initiative to support “Farming Hope,” yet another way to help people at the day shelter feel connected to the project, Pasineau says.

“We want them to develop a work ethic and to focus on the things they can do to help themselves,” York says. “We want to empower them so we want them to be involved at every step.”

For individuals who are very aware of what they don’t have and can’t do, the message that they can and should contribute is powerful, Brainerd says.

“The students’ work supports our efforts to encourage our guests to do their best,” Brainerd says. “We’re teaching people to have hope, and to find ways to survive and move forward. ‘Farming Hope’ is helping them focus on what they can do and what they do have, and that’s an important message for them to hear. And for many who know hunger, just knowing they have food gives them hope.”

This winter, the students also plan to offer monthly workshops at The Community Table, with topics ranging from gardening to wellness to hypothermia.

“Farming Hope Eau Claire” is a lofty undertaking for already busy students, but it’s a project that is well worth the effort, Pasineau says.

A growing number of Blugolds agree — the student organization is rapidly increasing its numbers.

Initially, there were six UW-Eau Claire nursing students involved in the “Farming Hope” project, but many more students have joined as word has spread, Pasineau says. Now, in addition to nursing majors, the organization includes students from many majors, such as social work, psychology, biology, Spanish and kinesiology.

The nursing students’ determination to bring “Farming Hope” to Eau Claire and to bring students from across campus into the project reflects the incredible impact immersion experiences like the one in El Salvador can have on individual students and a community, says Hecker Fernandes.

“Our goal is to allow our students to be out of their comfort zone and realize global health issues,” Hecker Fernandes says of the El Salvador immersion trip. “Our contacts are amazing, and the experience is beyond expectations. We want our nursing students to relate to the profession of nursing with a global perspective, to look outside the box at what each person, patient or population needs, and to develop the best way to access it with limited resources.”

While the students’ interaction with Maria Trinidad always is powerful, during the immersion trip they also connect with faculty and students at the University of Central America in San Salvador, local hospitals and health care clinics.

“We visit the only palliative care hospital in Central America to provide hand and foot massages to dying patients and, although the students may not be fluent in Spanish, the human touch of nursing is all that is needed for communication,” says Hecker Fernandes.

Before they travel to Central America, the students have pre-meetings to discuss the history and culture of El Salvador, specifically the civil war which ended only in the late 1980s.

The entire experience, students say, truly is life changing.

“It was an incredible trip and changed my view of the world and what it means to be a nurse,” Pasineau says. “We have so much yet so often we are still unhappy. They have so little but are happy and so giving. Their mindset was inspiring and we’re trying to bring that mindset here.”

Bringing that message of hope to the local homeless population is a great gift to the community, Brainerd says.

“The beauty of what the students are doing is that they are promoting this idea that you can make something from whatever you have,” Brainerd says. “You don’t need a lot but you need to figure out what you can do for yourself. And that’s a powerful message to share.”

Video/photo captions:

Video: The video highlights the UW-Eau Claire El Salvadorian immersion experience and "Farming Hope" project.

Top photo: A highlight of a nursing immersion trip to El Salvador is time spent working on a farm that is home to “Farming Hope,” a program that gives troubled youth skills and hope for a brighter future.

Side photo 1: Blugolds discuss "Farming Hope" with their El Salvadorian hosts.

Side photo 2: Flower pots for indoor gardening were painted by Positive Avenues guests.