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Extension Master Gardeners reach out to Burmese refugees

Carol Mark, right, speaks with the Thawng family about the vegetables growing in their garden.

PHOTO:
Owensboro, Ky.

On an overcast summer morning, the Thawng family was quietly gathering vegetables from their raised bed at a community garden on Daviess Street in Owensboro when Carol Mark arrived.

The couple and their children speak limited English, but they nodded their heads in understanding as Mark, a University of Kentucky Extension Master Gardener, asked them questions about their garden plot and tasted some vegetables with them.

Mark has worked with the family for a couple of years, ever since a pregnant Luan Thawng showed up at the First Christian Church of Owensboro.  The Thawngs help coordinate the garden and translate Mark’s educational messages to the other refugee families participating in the garden.

“Our goals are to help them acclimate, feel comfortable here and move on with their lives,” Mark said. “I love that they have a place to gather, to be in a community and to produce their own food.”

The Thawngs are among some of 409 refugees from Myanmar that resettled in Owensboro in the past five years with the help of the International Center of Kentucky, said Albert Mbanfu, the center’s executive director and CEO. The majority of refugees from the country formerly named Burma faced political, ethnic or religious discrimination in their home county.

“The International Center reached out to the community to get them involved in assisting the refugees,” Mbanfu said. “This outreach led to the partnership between the center, the church and other stakeholders who are working with the Burmese refugees in the garden project.”

Currently, 24 families have boxes in the garden with more families on a waiting list. Mark is one of six Extension Master Gardeners and numerous church volunteers who started the garden in 2011 with 12 raised beds on the church’s property. In July, the Extension Master Gardeners were in the process of installing six more boxes that will be ready for fall gardening. Mark estimated that the garden produced 900 pounds of produce for the families in 2012.

Garden participants are allowed to have one box per family. Boxes come in different sizes to accommodate the various sizes of families.

The families plant the vegetables they want to eat and also have permission to pick what they want from the fruit trees and berry bushes that line the property. Through various community donors, the seeds, tools, water and boxes are provided to gardeners for free.

Mark grows many of the plants from seed in her greenhouse and distributes them among the families. While much of the food they grow is American, they do have access to some plants from their native country through contacts at the International Center of Kentucky.

“The rules are you come, you garden, you enjoy.” Mark said.

The garden has been a community effort with many partners including Brescia University students, who decorated each of the garden boxes and painted a mural on a wall of a neighboring business. Through a program called “Tops for Bottoms,” the students have collected enough plastic tops to purchase two benches for the garden.

“This project really shows what we can do as a community to help people from other countries acclimate into the community and teach them gardening skills,” said Annette Heisdorffer, Daviess County horticulture agent for the UK Cooperative Extension Service. “Helping people help themselves is our goal.”

Heisdorffer served on the garden’s planning committee and helped the Extension Master Gardeners determine the types of plants that would grow well in the garden. She said it’s a wonderful demonstration garden for the community.

“I can point to this garden as other churches and faith-based communities worked together to provide food for individuals,” she said. “This is where it’s been done. This is how you can do it. This is where you can maybe get some of the materials.”

Heisdorffer said the county’s 40 active Extension Master Gardeners are involved in some type of outreach project as a part of the program. Projects, like the garden, are chosen based on community needs.

Contact: 

Annette Heisdorffer, 270-685-8480

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