The COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory stay at home orders have changed the way many people go to work each day.

But it is especially complicated when your job is a garden.

Tessa Yoo began working at FISH Food Bank in August 2019 as a Jesuit Volunteer/AmeriCorps member. Half of her position is focused on public health, and she serves as a community health worker for clients at the food bank.

The other half is related to the garden that sits behind the food bank and is run in partnership with Spirt of Grace church — planting, maintaining and harvesting, as well as coordinating the various groups of volunteers who come through to help.

“Some of the projects I worked on when I first started were things like starting seedlings for the crops that would grow over-winter, harvesting, weeding, leading volunteer work parties, planning a ‘pumpkin party’ for clients and their families in the fall,” Yoo said, “and then later I spent a lot of my time getting the garden ready to be put to rest for winter.”

Yoo said that she chose the position through Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, which is affiliated with AmeriCorps, because she was attracted to the roll of community health worker.

“My undergrad degree is in biology, and after I finish this year, I hope to go to nursing school,” she said. “I thought the gardening aspect of it would be a good opportunity to learn something new and dive deeper into an interest.”

On March 11, Yoo was sitting with 80 Master Gardeners at the quarterly meeting of the Central Gorge Master Gardener Association — she had begun training in January — and was signing up volunteers to help with the various aspects of the garden in the coming spring and summer months.

When they returned from break, they learned that Education Program Assistant for the Central Gorge Master Gardener program Megan Wickersham had just heard that all OSU meetings, classes and events of 50 or more were canceled due to COVID-19.

“The main change is that we can no longer hold volunteer work parties,” Yoo said. “In order to maintain social distancing, we really can’t have more than two or three people in the garden at once, so we are no longer able to hold work parties with lots of people. For similar reasons, none of the school groups can come and volunteer anymore either.”

There were other issues to overcome as well.

“When COVID-19 hit, the Jesuit Volunteer NW/AmeriCorps office mandated that all the JV members had to stay home and should not have contact with the public,” said Debby Chenoweth, outreach coordinator for Spirit of Grace Church and steering committee member for the Spirit of Grace Church/FISH Garden. “This was a major blow to the ability to have Tessa be on site to help manage the garden and help FISH food bank’s dramatically increased client base. We were able to connect WiFi at the JV house and Tessa did all of her work by computer and phone until a month later, when she was allowed to go to the garden when no one else was there.”

Yoo coordinated with a volunteer team of Master Gardeners, who continued to plant and tend the large garden that supplies the food bank, Chenoweth said. Yoo explained that, because of restrictions, only one volunteer was allowed in the garden at a time, and only at certain hours. “Master Gardeners generously volunteered their own time while COVID-19 restrictions keep them from volunteering as Master Gardener,” said Wickersham.

But some things haven’t changed, Yoo said. She still has the same responsibilities in the garden, and she is still working with volunteers to harvest vegetables for food bank clients with gardeners on the garden advisory committee.

She’s also continued her Master Gardener training and has participated in several Virtual Plant Clinics, researching and providing answers to community member’s plant problems, said Wickersham.

“Her dedication to learning as a new Master Gardener has undoubtedly supported her continued work in the FISH Garden,” she said.

“The Master Gardner classes have helped me learn a lot about gardening outside of vegetable gardening,” Yoo said. “Specifically, I’ve learned a lot of really helpful information about integrated pest management and healthy soils.”

OSU Extension has since approved Wickersham’s proposal to resume official Master Gardener volunteer work in the community and demonstration gardens as part of Phase 2. Starting in July, Yoo has the Mid-Columbia United Unitarian Fellowship (MCUUF) youth group coming to volunteer as well.

There are many ways to help that don’t include volunteering in the FISH garden but utilize food from home gardens, such as donating produce to the food bank.

“We also take monetary donations and donations of shelf-stable foods, personal hygiene items, baby food and diapers,” Yoo said. “During this time of COVID, we are also taking donations of cloth masks, which are distributed to clients and community members in need.”

She also encourages anyone in need of food assistance to utilize the food bank. “We are open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3:30-5 p.m.,” she said.

Yoo said donations can be dropped off from 8-10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or when the food bank is open for distribution.

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