A large, uncovered concrete slab in a corner of Yelm City Park has, for many years, remained bare and has been considered something of an eyesore to recreationalists. 

Soon though, it will play host to a totally new and unique community project for all Yelm residents to enjoy. 

A partnership between the city of Yelm, Yelm-based Bounty for Families, the Thurston Conservation District and Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB) is bringing the city’s first community garden to the park, with many more partners expected to jump on board once the garden opens to the public. 

Roughly 25 volunteers from multiple organizations and nonprofits came out this past Saturday to begin work constructing the community garden. When finished, it will feature 12 garden beds, a half-dozen cloth beds, a warehouse with a seed bank, benches and arbors, and two ADA-accessible paths leading to the garden from a nearby walking path and parking lot. 

The plat used to be a covered area that was demolished about two years ago, said city Public Works Director Cody Colt. 

Gordon’s Garden Center plans on donating the plants and seeds for the garden once its nearly finished, said Heidi Smith, board secretary of Bounty for Families.

The garden is expected to provide not only a beautiful and quaint escape across the park from the playground, but also education opportunities for the community on gardening and food security. 

Smith, who runs the seasonal Yelm Farmers Market, said there were many sites considered throughout Yelm for the garden, but the location in the city park, with its close proximity to the Yelm Community Center and free water provided by the city, made the most sense. 

This project, she said, has been years in the making, and should be substantially completed in May when the farmers market season begins. The idea for a community garden at Yelm City Park was first brainstormed by resident Chris Black. 

“I just think it’s going to be such a huge community asset … It’s overall going to be great for food security overall in Yelm and food education,” she said. “Our hope is that we can just get people really invested in it.” 

Part of the project is being funded through a $50,000 grant the Thurston Conservation District received last year through the National Association of Conservation Districts. That grant is also currently funding workshops and technical assistance work being done locally.

The project in recent years also received roughly $12,000 in grants from the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s charitable fund, Smith said. 

Nora White, education and outreach specialist with Thurston Conservation District, was the one who wrote the application to the National Association of Conservation Districts grant with Bounty for Families in mind, and helped jumpstart the process after years of slow starts. 

“Since I’ve worked at the conservation district, I’ve wanted to do something like this,” said White, a Tenino native, as volunteers in the background hauled lumber and drilled ends together to make beds. “The most interesting part has been the partnerships.” 

The idea of building the garden also became a more central part in distributing the grant funding as COVID-19 hit communities last year and inflamed food insecurities among vulnerable community members, White said. 

White and Smith both hope the community will make investments in the garden once it’s complete and ensure its wellbeing years after its first seeds are planted. 

On Saturday, volunteers were able to erect six garden beds. Olympia-based nonprofit GRuB provided the materials to build the beds and helped lead construction efforts. 

The nonprofit also hosts a program providing free garden beds to low-income individuals, seniors, veterans and those with disabilities; to date, it’s since topped more than 3,000 garden beds donated. 

Beau Gromley, community food solutions program manager at GRuB, said the Yelm project was their first kickoff project for 2021. 

Gromley, a vetern who served 15 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, was injured in Afghanistan. After returning to civilian life, he found solace and peace in tending to his own greenhouse, growing anything from tomatoes to cannabis. 

His love for the environment and interest in food insecurity grew from there, and he went on to attend The Evergreen State College. He later interned with GRuB, who hired him on and let him grow the program he now works under. 

“It’s events like these, it’s projects like these that really bring vets together,” Gromley said, noting that while some veterans can connect to the traditional post-service rehabilitation programs, there are other non-traditional routes, such as gardening and outdoor activities, that can help the transition.

Many vets and volunteers associated with the national nonprofit The Mission Continues also helped out Saturday with assembling beds. 

“This is just a good chance to get out in the public and get the veterans out to give back to the community,” said Jacob Kobielusz, leader of The Mission Continues’ Tacoma platoon. 

Linh Thai, west coast regional operation manager for The Mission Continues, said projects like these where veterans can come out and continue their service reinforces the core belief that they learn while in the military.

“Even though we’ve hung up our uniforms, our call to service has not diminished,” said the retired Army captain, who served from 1987 to 1997 and went on 10 deployments. He’s also separately served as a staffer for Congressman Adam Smith, and notes this is his third time being in Yelm. 

Thai also drew similarities between community project’s like the Yelm community garden and jobs in the military: no job is ever too small or without its merits, he said. There’s always a bigger purpose.

“It always brings me to tears and makes me happy when I connect with veterans,” Thai said. 

He said he also encourages vets in the community to find purpose by getting involved in local organizations doing notable work in their communities. 

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