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Simonka community garden grows where weeds once flourished

Darren Kinnird
Darren Kinnird, 10 and cousin Haley Lenhart, 9 admire the large tomato growing in the garden they helped build during a weekend in June for the Simonka Place. (Keizertimes/JOCE DEWITT)

For the Keizertimes

For several Salem area organizations, blessings have arrived in all shapes and sizes in the last couple months.

The Simonka Place in Keizer became the target of abundant community outreach efforts during the month of June as several Salem and West Valley nurses groups decided to apply their annual gift funds to a good cause.

The Simonka Place, located at 5119 River Road, is an arm of the Union Gospel Mission for women and children in need of shelter and outreach due to abuse and homelessness.

The nurses groups, including Salem SHAPES, Salem inpatient and West Valley SHAPES of Dallas, gathered their gift funds and gained contributions from local businesses to convert a weedy area of the Simonka Place’s backyard into a healthy garden full of vegetables, herbs and berries.

“Literally, the weeds were enormous,” says Michelle Slattum, Assistant Nurse Manager of Salem and West Valley SHAPES. “We came on a Sunday and pulled the big weeds. A week later we came back out with the youth group and started planting.”

Bridgeport Community Chapel of Dallas played a big part in the success of the event as members of the youth group volunteered to help build the garden.

“At one point we had 50 kids out here working like you wouldn’t believe,” says Kathy Smith, volunteer coordinator and case manager at Simonka Place.

“Thank goodness for the youth group. It was nice to have younger people involved,” says Slattum. “It’s important at that age to give back.”

People expected the economy to have a negative effect on how much the community was willing to contribute because “not everybody has what they’ve had in the past,” According to Brandy Lenhart, a CNA for Salem SHAPES who brought her kids to help.

That reality seemed irrelevant during the project, however, as various local businesses generously donated plants, bark chips and other supplies.

“The volunteers were given a budget of $500 from Salem Health for the entire project,” said Slattum, “Instead of keeping the gifts we are given every year for ourselves, they challenged us to do a project.”

So why choose to plant a garden?

Finished June 26, the plot of land portrays a space of complete restoration. Two months later it still provides Simonka residents with lush, nutritious valuable foods.

The evolution of the garden can be compared to those of the patients of the Simonka House, in which desperate women and children are taken in, transformed and upheld by caregivers of the community.

“The goal is for this to be a place for women to come and enjoy the outside. They all come out and work in the garden and are assigned a certain section,” says Smith. “It provides normalcy; it’s therapeutic.”

Among all the other benefits, the garden project also unified the city remarkably.

“Everything we do is dependent on volunteers, so maintenance can be difficult,” says Smith. “This got the whole community involved.”

“We’re caregivers, and most of us are women, so this project really hit home,” says Slattum. “Once we got involved it was so rewarding.”