Deep down, everyone’s a farmer.
In a quiet yard at Esperanza Court, planter boxes wear a cap of sprouting lettuce, green beans, beets and other vegetables. Residents of the Catholic Charities affordable housing community in Southeast Portland are caring for the little garden, and the results include healthy food, daily exercise and community interaction.
“It’s nice to have this at a housing complex, especially for us elderly,” said Sherri Blake, a resident of Esperanza Court for three years. “I was thrilled when I heard about this.”
Ermias Mehari, Catholic Charities resident services coordinator for Esperanza Court and adjacent Kateri Park, plants vegetables along with residents Janice Lytle and Sherri Blake.
Globs of Oregon soil dropped from Blake’s fingers as she looked over her handiwork: neat rows of freshly planted lettuce.
“We older mature people love getting our hands in the dirt,” she said.
Blake, who comes from a family of Midwest farmers, always worked in her family’s plots and patches and feels she has agriculture in her blood.
The same goes for Janice Lytle, who has lived at Esperanza since 2020. A member of the Wiyot Tribe, she grew up in the 1950s working in her grandfather’s garden in the foothills of Mount Hood. Lytle recalls hoeing rows and sneaking mouthfuls of young asparagus and ripe black cap berries, much to her grandpa’s chagrin. But what child could resist?
Lytle, with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, still delights in gardening.
“It’s a place where I can find calm and peace,” she said as she plunged her hands deep into soil to plant leaf lettuce.
Sherri Blake plants beets in a communal garden outside Esperanza Court, where she lives.
The four garden boxes are a Catholic Charities inside job. Jen Toohey, the agency’s volunteer manager, teamed up with her mother to donate them. Sally Erickson, Director of Supportive Services, donated a gift card so Catholic Charities could purchase plants from SymbiOp, a garden shop seven blocks from agency headquarters.
Ermias Mehari, resident services coordinator for Esperanza Court and adjacent Kateri Park, took it from there. Mehari assembled boxes in a sunny location, purchasing soil and buying starts. On planting day, Mehari got help from his 11-year-old daughter Elena, who clearly has natural leadership abilities.
“It is not so much to produce food as to offer therapeutic exercise and communal interaction,” said Mehari, who has been a farmer as well as a humanitarian worker. “You come to water, you come to work the soil, and you meet there.”
Ermias Mehari, Catholic Charities resident services coordinator for Esperanza Court and Kateri Park, prepares a planter box with his daughter Elena, 11.
He thinks elders in the buildings might especially benefit. He has noticed loneliness among the residents, some of whom may be accustomed to larger families and village living.
Mehari is glad for this summer activity for residents. As fall approaches, he’ll face a bigger challenge: alleviating winter blues. He is concerned that too many elders keep to their rooms and get starved for company. He does his best to visit, but he’s just one staff person. Volunteer visitors would be most welcome.
But for now, Blake and Lytle are among eight Esperanza residents who have signed up to water and tend the new planters. Any resident can harvest the produce if they consult first with Mehari. The garden will be a hub of leafy, earthy friendships.
Ermias Mehari, Catholic Charities resident services coordinator for Esperanza Court and adjacent Kateri Park, shows a flat of carrots to residents Sherri Blake and Janice Lytle.