Pumped for Produce: Stories of Connecting Families with Fresh Food

Over the past year, Melissa Mardo has been serving as a JV AmeriCorps member in Spokane with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. Focusing on food access, her tales of cooking, teaching, and interacting with youth weren’t quite what she had initially envisioned when she began her service.

At Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington (Spokane), my JV AmeriCorps service is within the Food For All program. As a Community Food Resources Specialist, we aim to build better access to healthy, affordable food for vulnerable families by connecting them to the fruits of our local food system. Some of the ways I help connect families is with our produce delivery, since the food grown on our own 12,000 square foot farm is given to Catholic Charities Housing Communities. In addition, plant starts from our Buy-One Supply-One plant sale are donated to housing communities and local community gardens.

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Catholic Charities’ 12,000 square foot garden supplies residents with fresh produce.

I was able to spend time this year in Food For All’s greenhouse. After the annual plant sale, the next two weeks involved donating flowers and vegetable starts to Catholic Charities Housing Units and various community garden sites. I assisted with a planting event at a Catholic Charities Housing Unit whose primary residents are suffering from chronic homelessness. The residents were beyond excited for the cherry tomato plants and one person decided to test out the pumpkin plant in her two new garden beds. I talked with one woman who decided to try the abundantly-producing sungold tomatoes: her reasoning was that if people from the next-door homeless shelter were to enjoy some from her plant, she would still have some tomatoes leftover. She knew what it meant to be hungry so she remained optimistic while preparing her two new garden beds, even if there would be some uninvited visitors.  It is so easy for many of us to find excuses not to garden. “I’m tired” or “I don’t have time” are common refrains from many of us, yet knowing about probable plant destruction did not stop these residents from filling all 20 garden beds full with plant starts.


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Food prepared by children at the Hutton Settlement. Here, Melissa taught residents about healthy snack and dessert options.

During my time in Spokane, I was also able to visit Hutton Settlement, a children’s home, to bake squash bars for their culinary class. My initial assumption that children would disdain vegetables appeared to be true. As each child entered the room and heard we were using squash to create a dessert, they scrunched up their noses, stuck out their tongues, and whined, “Ewww.” I knew when I was younger I would have had the same reaction, but what surprised me is that every child was still willing to try the food. While initially hesitant about a vegetable-based “dessert,” being involved with the process made them invested in the outcome and they were ultimately curious to try these mysterious squash bars.


Throughout this year, I’ve loved meeting so many kids that love their vegetables. I run a kid’s booth at a farmer’s market where each week we offer a new activity related to exercise or nutrition and the children can earn $2 to spend at the market if they participate in the activity. The coupon is valid for fruits, vegetables, plant starts, or herbs. Each week the kids tell me they are excited to buy carrots or strawberries. Recently, a mother shared with me that the reason they visit the market each week is because her three kids are begging to do the new activity. While she talked with me, the kids debated whether to pool their money to buy radishes or each purchase a plant-start to add to their home garden. Since the children earn their own $2, they are excited to go shopping and buy a vegetable for themselves. The program allows us to empower children to use their money for fresh fruit and vegetables and feel included at farmer’s markets.

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Melissa works the KERNEL booth at a farmer’s market. Children are able to learn about companion planting and can take a basil plant home.

Whether it is trying a new food or starting a garden bed for the first time, I have witnessed everyone’s willingness to try this year. And I think we all can use some of that openness. It was easy to make assumptions entering into this service year. I wrongly thought that people would be uninterested in kale, rainbow chard, or turnips. This year, the places I deliver produce to and the parenting classes I coordinate have all requested that I bring more vegetables and fresh fruit. My JV AmeriCorps service at Food For All makes it possible for anyone to access more fruits and vegetables, thus increasing healthy food options throughout the community.    





Women in Science Day

This month, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps members Ember McCoy (Gresham, OR) and Karen Goldburg (Hillsboro, OR) as they host a “learning outside the classroom” opportunity at the Women in Science Day through SOLVE. SOLVE’s mission focuses on “bringing Oregonians together to improve our environment and build a legacy of stewardship.” This mission ties in perfectly with the 45th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd!  

If we had to choose only one thing that is rewarding about serving at SOLVE, it is the emphasis that our organization places on educating young people and empowering them to take their learning outside of the classroom.  Recently, we had the opportunity to facilitate this mission in a setting near to our hearts: encouraging young girls to pursue higher education and careers in the still male-dominated science realm.

JV AmeriCorps members Ember McCoy and Karen Goldburg at the Women in Science Day

JV AmeriCorps members Ember McCoy and Karen Goldburg at the Women in Science Day

On Saturday March 7th, SOLVE hosted our annual Women in Science Day, an event that invites middle and high school-aged girls to come learn about careers in the sciences from women who currently work in fields ranging from healthcare to zoology to engineering.  The event includes small group discussions where the mentors share their stories – their jobs and the experiences that led them there – and answer questions from the participants. The girls had the opportunity to tour Genentech, a biotechnology company in Hillsboro where anti-cancer drugs are made, as well as participate in a native planting at one of SOLVE’s stream restoration sites with the mentors.

The event was larger than ever this year, with 65 girls from schools across Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas counties having the opportunity to engage in conversation with twenty mentors from over eight fields of science.  Both of us majored in the sciences and were so humbled to be able to give the girls in our community an opportunity we never had – a look into careers or majors they never knew existed, advice, and encouragement guiding them toward the fields of their dreams.

Despite all of the long hours of planning and coordination that had to occur beforehand, it was absolutely incredible to be able to stand on the sidelines and witness all of the connecting and affirming that was happening right before our eyes.  The stories of inspiration could be seen everywhere: a sixth grader who dreams of one day entering the healthcare field after hearing about physician’s assistants for the first time; a senior in high Women in Science 2school who said she loves the outdoors and plans on majoring in environmental science in college; and an engineering mentor who wishes she could have been supported in this way as a woman earlier in her career.

Women in Science Day was truly a day filled with hope, guidance, and encouragement. We are so proud to stand beside all of the girls and mentors as women in science, as well as so honored to serve at an organization that has given us the opportunity to do so.

Farewell, JVC Northwest!

Sarah McClure was the AmeriCorps Administrative Assistant at JVC Northwest and editor of this blog until May 10th. This is her farewell reflection highlighting an immersion experience she had through one of our JVC AmeriCorps placement sites. 

During my time at JVC Northwest as the Administrative Assistant for AmeriCorps, I’ve spent a lot of my time in our office in North Portland, Oregon. I read direct service activities, double-check timesheets, and collect various forms. The administration of a federal grant requires a lot of careful paperwork, and it’s been my job to make sure that we’re doing everything as well as we can.

However, when my supervisor, Clarissa, suggested I visit a couple of the JV AmeriCorps sites in the area, I jumped at the chance. I knew I’d be able to see JV AmeriCorps members in action- and watch them do the work I only normally get to hear them report on. I decided to accompany JV AmeriCorps member Joe Clark on one of his immersion programs with JOIN, a group dedicated to increasing understanding about the issues of homelessness.

Sarah (center) listens intently as JV AmeriCorps member Joe Clark asks the group to voice their expectations for the immersion weekend at JOIN.

So one Friday night, I took the bus out to 82nd street from my house in inner Northeast Portland and prepared to spend the night, and much of the next day, exploring the day-to-day realities of a person experiencing homelessness in Portland. I was joining up with a youth group, who were there for a three-day experience. On Friday night, we talked about our anticipation for the next day’s activities: what did we think we would see? Smell? What kind of people would we be talking to? What would it be like to talk with someone who lives outside, who we’ve rushed by so many times in our lives? I watched the kids struggle with these questions as we prepared to go to sleep.

For the homeless population of Portland, finding a good place to spend the night can be a huge challenge. Some choose to sleep under bridges, like the one shown here.

Saturday morning, I woke to Joe’s cheery, “EVERYBODY UP! IT’S 5:15 am! THAT MEANS FIVE HOURS OF THE DAY ARE ALREADY GONE!” I could tell he got a real kick out of rousing teenagers at 5:15am- the youth were not quite as amused. We rode the train into downtown Portland, where most of the services for the homeless population are. For breakfast, we waited in line- just like hundreds do every day in downtown Portland- for coffee, pancakes, sausage, and eggs. The Blanchet House, which provides free breakfast six days a week, served up a delicious meal, and I was grateful for it. I’d slept inside, and I’d had a good dinner the night before, but the cold had made me especially hungry. It was not far from my mind that if I’d been expending energy all night trying to keep warm in a sleeping bag under a bridge, I’d appreciate the meal that much more.

The group visited Right 2 Dream Too, where up to 45 people living outside can spend the night in a safe, enclosed encampment.

The day continued with a tour of the different services available in Old Town for a person living on the streets- we saw Street Roots and Sisters of the Road, where JV AmeriCorps members Cole Merkel and Andrea Jacobson serve every day. We also saw St. Andre Bessette, where JV AmeriCorps member Eddie Guildbeau serves. As we walked around, I was struck by how many of the critical services for society’s most marginalized were being provided by JV AmeriCorps members, and I felt an incredible sense of pride. The mission of JVC Northwest is to reach out to people living in vulnerable situations, and for me, the organization’s success in doing that was illustrated clearly as we walked through downtown Portland. I realized that at almost every place a person in need could receive help, you would find a JV AmeriCorps member in their service.

The reasons for my immersion trip with Joe were multiple: to gain a better understanding of what a person living outside goes through to meet their basic needs, to get to better know my city, and to challenge myself to have a new experience. I met all those goals, but I also got something else out of it. I felt even more connected to the program that I’d been supporting in an administrative role, and I could really see how my role in the office supports JV AmeriCorps members like Joe in the critical work that they do.

JV AmeriCorps member Joe Clark showed the immersion volunteers some of the methods people experiencing homelessness use to find money, including collecting cans.

I write this blog on the last day of my employment here at JVC Northwest. Life calls me in a different direction, and I have to follow the call- but I reflect on my time here with immense gratitude. My role at JVC Northwest has been one small piece of a giant puzzle that unites AmeriCorps members, volunteers, staff, and the communities we serve in creating a more positive, just, and understanding world. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work here and see what it looks like when people dedicate themselves to improving their communities and the lives of others—when they become, as we say here at the office, “ruined for life.”

New Avenues for Youth

My name is Ginny Michel and I am a JV AmeriCorps member currently serving at New Avenues for Youth in Portland, Oregon for the 2011-2012 year.  New Avenues for Youth, or NAFY, is an outreach center working with homelessness and at risk youth.  NAFY has an education department, eight full-time case managers, a job training facility, and a drop-in area where youth can relax, hang out, and eat three meals a day, six days a week.  My position is part of the education team.  Our team cooks and hosts a busy breakfast each day for about forty-five youth.  Then at 10:00am sharp, we close the breakfast area and take whoever is seeking education opportunities back to our learning center where they can work on their high school diplomas, GEDs or participate in the classroom activities.  It’s a pretty sweet place!

Ginny prepares sauce for the breakfast she serves daily at New Avenues for Youth.

Most of our youth that I interact with sleep out on the streets surrounded by drugs, violence, and uncertainty. They live in a culture that is constantly telling them that they are not good enough and that they do not belong. Without privilege, I feel like a person’s humanity can be lost in the system–even at places like NAFY where we focus on helping this population.  Many of our youth are born into families caught in a cycle of poverty, drugs, and physical and mental abuse.  I often find myself becoming angry and upset when hearing about their childhood stories and their lives on the streets.  It’s not fair.  I see the mental delays in development and it hurts.

Ginny balances serving as a meal provider in the morning with helping youth work toward their GED the rest of the day.

I also get to see that these are amazing individuals with incredible talents and gifts.   I see their artwork, poetry, musical abilities, sarcasm, and insights; I see their faces light up when they talk about their goals, books, artists, activities, or employment opportunities. I see how proud they are when they receive their GED passing scores.  These youth are beautiful and experiencing those moments make me so happy.

Ginny shares a moment interacting with one of NAFY’s young faces.

The other day I was talking with a client, Ben, at breakfast. Ben is bright, polite, and eighteen years old. He is always smiling as he plays the guitar and is sure to say “Please” and “Thank you” when he is in line for breakfast.  I told Ben that he would be a great leader and role model to facilitate a group at NAFY. The conversation led to Ben telling me about his past life and how he wasn’t always so happy. Ben told me that he was born into a physically abusive, drug affected family and lived in a culture where the only way to feel protected was to be in a gang. He talked of the social pressure he felt in the gang and how it took seeing his best friend getting shot in the head by a an opposing gang member for Ben to realize that if he kept living this life he would either die or go to jail. I asked him how he dealt with his anger and sadness over the loss of his friend, and he told me that he tried very hard to not feel anything–he couldn’t otherwise he would feel vulnerable. He had to numb his basic emotions in order to survive. Ben decided that he needed to change his life before he ended up making a huge mistake.  He came west to Portland and has been making changes in his life ever since.  After weeks of crunching the numbers in the tutoring lab to prepare for his last GED Math test, Ben accomplished his goal. My favorite moment at New Avenues so far was watching Ben’s smile as I handed him his GED passing score.


Hi my name is Claire, I’m a JV AmeriCorps member in Spokane Romero house and I work with BABIES!

Through my service with the Catholic Charities Childbirth and Parenting Assistance (CAPA) Program I have the opportunity to serve with expecting parents and those with children under the age of three. CAPA provides parents with services ranging from the basic physical necessities of clothing and diapers to essential emotional support through counseling, parenting classes, support groups, and mentors.

Top 5 Things I’ve learned at CAPA:
1. How to identify diaper sizes at a distance based on the animal icon
2. That diapers can leak! (Terrifying, I know. I thought there was some sort of hypothermic seal on them… false.)
3. Infant and toddler clothing is very gendered, but super cute.
4. Parents are AMAZING, awe-inspiring, resilient, and really sleep-deprived
5.  I am SO lucky and blessed to have loving, supporting, and stable family and friends

You get pretty good at identifying diaper sizes when your office looks like this.

While many parents initially come to us to receive the basic physical support we provide, it is the emotional support CAPA provides that is its most important, if intangible, service. CAPA is a refuge of loving support for parents who want to do a good job but lack healthy support systems and monetary or emotional stability in their own lives. With their own cups leaky or half-full, our parents need extra compassion, love, and support so that they can be filled up and pass that love on to their children in a healthy and sustainable way.

Claire and her modified Catholic Charities license plate bracket. As a full-time JV AmeriCorps member, Claire spends her days serving for Catholic Charities.

It has been a privilege and honor to get to know our CAPA parents during my time here. Many of our clients come to us when they are pregnant and it is such a joy to walk with them through their pregnancy, their fears, anxiety, excitement, and anticipation as they await the birth of their child. The most awe-inspiring thing to witness is the immediate love that joins parent and child.

A CAPA client and new mom takes a moment to pose with her new baby and Claire.

While many of our clients come from incredibly challenging backgrounds and have heartbreaking stories, I am constantly awed by their resilience and strength as they work to become the best parents they can be for their child. The road is never straight, but through the unconditional love and compassion that CAPA provides I’ve seen many new parents blossom into self-assured, empowered, and loving people. While holding babies is amazing, getting to know the parents and walk with them is the most rewarding part of my placement.