2014 PFIG Recipient Kristen Inglese
College of Arts & Sciences
English & Global Development Studies
2016 Graduation Year
Internship: The Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, CA.
Notes on the first week
The outside of the drying shed has started to pale. Its wooden structure is peeling and ashen, yet one tug on the hand-made pulley allows it to breathe again. The upper window swings open in its exhalation, along with the doors below that invite passerby to inhale its insides. Revealed from within are slides of native yarrow and dusty miller, lavender and crinkling straw flowers that hang from their wire beds in patient rows. In the late winter months, they will find a new home in wreaths and sachets. Tucked away from the wind that flows from the valley but still in sight of the farm in its entirety, this wood enclosure is my favorite place within the Homeless Garden Project farm.
The project is located in Santa Cruz, California and provides transitional employment for fifteen farm trainees who are currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. As an intern for the Community Supported Agriculture program, I harvest with these men and women and maintain the farm stand in the morning. The project is a U-Pick farm— those who come to purchase produce are encouraged to pick their own yield. In the garden, the trainees are the teachers of harvest. They learn each day as part of the year long program and are able to show customers how each crop should be drawn from the ground. To encourage others to learn about this farm community, my co-intern and I write a weekly newsletter with recipes and advocacy for involvement in local agricultural projects.
Our mornings begin with stretches and three breaths of joy in which we extend our arms forward, outward, and upward before allowing them to drop as we let go of any memories that separate us from the earth. After checking for duck eggs laid by the long-necked Indian Runners and shorter Khaki Campbells, we spread off to rotating job positions. There is an art to each duty that must be performed, turning it from work into a process that can be learned and enjoyed. We, trainees, try to take extra care in every assignment we are given. There are dirt beds that need digging and weeds that need pulling, as well as planning needed for the next planting season. On some days, we are assigned a role as kitchen assistant in the small hut where solar panels provide hot water to cook soup or vegetarian pate made from harvested vegetables. At the farm stand shift, trainees offer customer service and welcoming words. We break for lunch each day under the canopy of old door frames where we exchange stories of local plants, nearby walks, and hopes for the future.
In this place of restoration, it is difficult to imagine that the knowledge of farm training was preceded by an individual’s emptiness. For many of the trainees, this former homelessness included isolation from themselves, in the form of substance addiction and abuse. Surrounded by volunteers and the opportunity to learn from weekly workshops, the trainees are offered both a community and a source of employment. On some days we are joined by low-risk jail inmates who enjoy the peaceful change of scenery. There are social workers who help the trainees envision the future that awaits them after leaving the farm, while they continue to live in each present moment.
So far, I have experienced both the farm and office side of the project’s operation. I work alongside the trainees, but I also have been learning from the garden manager and the director of the program who organizes the downtown store in which many of the farm products are sold. My plans for the next weeks include learning how the trainee applications process works and learning about the farm’s history so that I can tell customers about it. I want to know which plants are in which rows by memory, just as the trainees do, so I can direct visitors without looking. I have been offered a chance to attend the social workers’ meeting, and I am looking forward to it. I hope to help choose which weekly workshops are selected for next month, as they currently fall into three categories: personal growth, professional experience, and horticultural skill. I will be conducting interviews of the trainees as part of the newsletter. Since I am interested in learning about how a trainee program like this can be started, I would like to speak with the director about what it takes to get a farming project into the ground. Personally, I would like to make homemade marshmallows out of the local mallow plant that one of the trainees showed me. Most importantly, I want to listen to the stories and lessons of my new trainee friends and engage in service to our land and to one another as we continue to learn side by side.
Between four and five in the morning, the farm transitions in place. The air is no longer darker than the ground and the blue lattice field begins to offer its brightness for a guided awakening. We went to the farm at this hour to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It felt like the shortest, finished in a contented instance. After a shared plate of duck eggs, I sat in the greenhouse for a break from the cold. I awoke there not remembering that I had slept at all. Beginning at nine, the work day resumed its normalcy, yet beneath the daily routine lay the reminder of a non-time that had taken us away for a while.
The mid-way point of this internship has also arrived in an unrecognizably short period. Since last writing, I have started attending the social workers’ meetings that take place once a week. Joining in with the social work interns in addition to farm duties has introduced me to a different sphere of the project, where I feel more connected. Before participating in these meetings, I began to feel a certain distance in my understanding of my position on the farm. As the CSA intern, I am an intermediate between the customers and the farm, as well as the voice behind the weekly newsletter that my co-intern and I write. While trying to maintain the image of a restorative farm, however, the presence of harsh stories sometimes arises as if from beneath the garden beds. Having a place to talk about what we witness on the farm and share ideas within the social worker meetings has helped to stay positive and remember that there can be a home for the houseless, even as they come and go. It allows time to talk about each individual instead of grouping them together. I have learned to maintain the ties between farm and community by first forming a community within the farm through this new connection. I have always been interested in learning about social work, and being here has given me the opportunity to do so. Looking ahead to the second portion of this experience, I hope to continue to learn from the friendships between trainees. For the most recent newsletter, we transitioned from writing about farm activities to telling their stories. I am looking forward to writing more about what the farm has meant to each of them. I hope to offer as much optimism as that which my co-workers give each day and continue to think about what the idea of public service means. So far, I know that it is a mutual experience of learning and letting go of expectations and presumptions. I am learning the balance between setting plans of progress versus experiencing contentment with the way circumstances are.
Each Tuesday morning, at the start of the work week, we all encircled. The round-about sharing of experiences began with general announcements, followed by a posed question, which the farm manager would ask to prompt us into speaking our thoughts in turn. At the most recent circle, within the final week of my internship, the question asked happened to be ‘what is something that you have recently learned?’ I watched co-farmers listen to one another, alternating between laughs and downcast eyes in response to some of the shared lessons of respective accomplishments and trials. When it came to my turn to reflect upon the past eight weeks, I shared that I had relearned gratitude. I found myself using the word “we” instead of “I”, specifically saying that we were proud of each other, to be learning together.
In the circle, we kept our answers concise, as the farm maintains a careful balance between focusing on the land and focusing on the trainees. That is, there is an unspoken limit on the depth of what is shared in relation to personal experiences that caused homelessness, as to do so would allow the stories to be entrapping rather than merely recognized. My learned lesson of the past eight weeks comes from understanding that balance.
I was taught long ago that public service is a mutual exchange of helping one another, rather than a service that is provided in one direction. Yet it wasn’t until being on the farm that I recognized how challenging it is to accept the communality of helping. When I first arrived at the farm, I felt myself leaving at the end of each day with the sense that I hadn’t made a difference. Knowing that many of my new co-farmers were only recently recovering from addictions and overcoming their label as outsiders of their society, I imagined that certain thoughts could be found to bring them closure. Instead of giving in to the scents of tulsi basil and duck hay, I walked the garden’s rows as if I was searching for some way to help them overcome their patterns of self-infliction. This wandering surrounded the expectation that a gateway would open for them somewhere, if we only looked further. It took a few weeks before I was able to recognize that I was standing in that gateway. The farm itself was the help they needed and the best way that I could contribute was to dissipate into it and form friendships. With this change, I could gradually allow myself to internally reflect on my own past and future without feeling selfish. As in our friendships we seem to seek someone who can offer unconscious empathy and the enjoyment of mutual experiences, I learned to let go of the constant need to sympathize in order to instead form an equal community. With a quiet intention, the farm helped me to learn how much we can offer to one another by simply being present.
While presence is simple, becoming present is not. I have learned that to feel presence, one must help himself or herself first before attempting to help others. This knowing of oneself relates to the commitment one makes to his or her own interests. Like the farm manager who loves agriculture and the trainee who loves street art, the social worker who loves psychology and the farm store director who loves management, I recognized that I love to write stories. The desire to ‘help others’ is one that we all seem to share, but it is only those who learn to pursue their own beliefs and imaginations, whatever they may be, who can then help others to do the same. Experiences of the past can cause one to doubt this self-direction, but I know now that it can be overcome by learning to be an intermediate between the observer and the observed. This lesson has allowed me to make the decision to major in English, instead of double majoring. The farm taught me to be thankful for the continual non-understanding that allows us to feel as if we are learning each day.