Portland, OR. The Sunflower Farm, an organic garden hosted by the nonprofit Focus on Youth, has expanded exponentially this summer, despite losing the support of its houseless youth volunteers. Founder Donna Lee Holmes said she was amazed at the willingness of the community to support one another during these tough times. 

“It’s like a miracle happened,” she said. “We have had more volunteers this year than we have ever had, and it’s because people wanna channel their love and energy into something positive.” 

The organization is still looking for volunteers who want a chance to connect with nature and like-minded people while they dig in the dirt. Volunteers say it’s a great place to learn something new every day. Morgan, pictured above, has been working hard on the garden since March. 

This recent expansion didn’t come for free. Holmes said that at the beginning of the pandemic, the Templeton Foundation reached out with an offer to change what funding the nonprofit applied for. Since no youth volunteers were coming in, Focus on Youth decided to focus on the garden. 

Selene is a volunteer at the Sunflower Farm. She started working there to get more involved with the community.

The Sunflower Farm donates its produce to the Neighborhood House and recently started donating to St. Anthony’s Church as well. Lines at food pantries have been long during the pandemic, so the extra produce is needed. Sunflower Farm is also home to 35 chickens, most of which were adopted recently to provide a good source of protein to people in need. The organization is hoping to donate over 9000 eggs by the end of the year. One thing they lack is egg cartons for transport; donations of these are appreciated. 

The farm is home to lots of chickens.

Holmes hopes the farm will attract more young children and families in the coming months, as working at the garden is a tactile educational experience. This hands-on learning is even more needed as classrooms go online. “It’s as if you’re being immersed into a science book,” Holmes said. “I’d like as many children as possible to have that experience.” 

A small watermelon growing at the farm.

The farm is home to a plethora of flower, vegetable, and tree species, many chickens, a resident dog, mason bees, an impressive amount of compost, and a pond where salamanders and small fish can be found. 

Focus on Youth recently applied for funding to start a greenhouse so volunteers can save money by nurturing their own seedlings during the winter rather than buying them. And in a continuation of the farm’s expansion, they’ve also recently planted their first-ever batch of fall vegetables. Holmes hopes the flourishing of the garden will not only bring the community together but bring hope to all who are currently struggling.  

The Sunflower Farm has many of its namesake flowers.

“What a garden represents is hope, and we all need that right now … There’s so much worry and concern about staying safe, about having food,” she said. “There’s something that’s very spiritual about digging in the earth and knowing that you’re being of service to others, there’s a certain peace that comes with that, and just a quiet joy.” 

A garden is a place where all people can come together, regardless of background. The foundation of Focus on Youth is in photography and gardening, but also in cooking. 

“We all need to feel that we belong somewhere, and a garden is someplace where everybody can come,” Holmes said. “Whatever background someone is, we all join in food, and food is love.”

From Focus on Youth: Focus on Youth and our program Seeds of Hope teaches sustainable gardening and photography to at-risk and homeless youth at Sunflower Farm. Learn more on the nonprofit’s website: http://focusonyouth.org