VOLUNTEERING WITH THE VOLUNTEERS
Tennessee's third largest city, Knoxville, lies less than an hour from the Great Smoky Mountains. First settled in 1786, Knoxville was the first capital of Tennessee, and is still home to folks who've called this area home for generations.
It's a textbook "college town" too. The University of Tennessee and its 28,000 students, known as "Volunteers," are an ever-present part of the community.
A growing and vibrant city, it's also a new home to thousands of people who've moved from other states and countries, some of them refugees from Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, among others.
Knoxville is diverse, but does have a few things that bring its varied communities together. Things like food. Especially when growing that food is the focus.
In a park adjacent to the now-closed Knoxville College, a little north of downtown, Beardsley Community Farm sits on a few small hills. Established 20 years ago in what was then a food desert, its mission is to promote food security and sustainable agriculture by providing fresh produce to a variety of Knoxville kitchens and pantries. It also educates residents on growing food and healthy eating, and promotes community gardening (community plots are available to residents of the neighborhood surrounding the farm, which includes many refugees).
The farm, which is staffed by a few dedicated employees and AmeriCorps members that are driven by environmental concerns and idealistic pursuits, relies heavily on volunteers, hundreds of which are students from the University of Tennessee (UT as it's known around Knoxville). Volunteers by more than just mascot naming rights.
After a quick tour of the property, I dragged John-Michael away from the greenhouse (he thinks greenhouses are, in his words, "sexy") so we could get started on helping out.
Joined by several UT students, and armed with gloves and shovels, we got to work prepping raised beds for raspberry transplants. Under a canopy of clouds that seemed too tired and gray to bother producing rain, we were quickly covered in damp, clay soil, surrounded by the chatter of college students and their scholastic concerns, and couldn't have been happier about it.
Growing food is cathartic. Getting dirt on you is therapeutic. Being surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth is invigorating. The day flew by in a flurry of gardening, story sharing, and a few of our dated jokes and references which the much younger crowd didn't always get (who knew Tears for Fears and Doogie Howser references were dated?). Sometimes we forget that we're 40.
More importantly, our work partners for the day did get the importance of what they were a part of. They understand how vital volunteering is to having a healthy, happy, and strong community. They get that fresh, chemical free, sustainably grown food is imperative to their future. Things that, ahem, some of us "older" people seem to fail to comprehend, have forgotten, or most painfully, have cynically dismissed in our advancing years.
Hope is one of the few things that make us uniquely human, and action is its progeny. At Beardsley Community Farm, hope grows right alongside fruits and vegetables. Business students get dirty right alongside environmentalists and idealists. And, volunteers volunteer right alongside Volunteers.