Heirloom seed sale will help take mind off winter, feed neighbors

February 17, 2015

Looking for ways to cope with a foot of snow, single-digit temperatures and the virtual shutdown of Kentucky? Try sitting back, pouring a cup of coffee and planning your spring garden.

Then, when you have it all planned, make plans go to Woodland Christian Church on Feb. 28 for Glean KY’s seventh annual heirloom seed sale.

seedsaleThe sale is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church, 530 East High Street, across from Woodland Park. There will be seeds for a wide variety of vegetables and herbs — most of which you can’t buy at a big-box store.

“There’s a real market for these heirloom seeds, and I think we have just scratched the surface of that,” said Erica Horn, an attorney and accountant who helped start Glean KY and is its volunteer president. “It’s almost like a backyard gardener’s expo.”

Stephanie Wooten, Glean KY’s executive director and its only full-time employee, said the sale will offer information as well as seeds.

“We just finished a really great seed catalog that has all the instructions you need,” she said. “And we hope to have some experts at the sale so that as you are making your purchase, you can ask questions.”

The sale is the biggest annual fundraiser for Glean KY, formerly known as Faith Feeds, which for nearly five years has collected food that might otherwise have gone to waste and made it available to poor people.

Last year, Glean KY’s more than 300 volunteers collected nearly 270,000 pounds of surplus fruit and vegetables. The produce was redistributed through more than 50 Central Kentucky charities and organizations.

“We fill the gap by doing the labor to pick up that excess and get it to folks who distribute it to people who need it,” Horn said.

Glean KY began as Faith Feeds in March 2010. It was the brainchild of John Walker, an avid gardener who grew more food than he and his neighbors could use. He knew that there were many hungry people in Lexington, and he had heard of gleaning organizations elsewhere that tried to match surplus food with need.

photoVolunteers make regular stops at food stores to pick up produce and packaged foods nearing their sales-expiration date. The biggest suppliers include Costco Wholesale, Good Foods Co-op and Whole Foods Market.

During the growing season, volunteers also collect surplus produce from the Lexington and Bluegrass farmers markets, the University of Kentucky’s South Farm and Reed Valley Orchard near Paris.

That food is then taken to agencies including the Catholic Action Center, Nathaniel Mission and First Presbyterian Church that distribute food or meals to people in need.

Horn recalled the day after Thanksgiving last year when she picked up about 25 prepared vegetable trays that Costco had left over.

“I dropped them off at the Catholic Action Center, and when I was leaving the building, I could hear them in the kitchen roaring with excitement,” she said.

“I’ve been privileged to be involved with a lot of groups,” Horn said. “But I’ve never done anything that fulfills me personally as much as this group does.”

Most of Glean KY’s money comes from individual donations, which have grown from $2,000 in 2010 to about $50,000 last year. Other support has come from grants and fundraising events such as the heirloom seed sale.

Last November, the organization bought a van to help transport food with grants from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels and Beaumont Presbyterian Church.

Another successful distribution network for Glean KY food is Christian and Tanya Torp’s home in Lexington’s East End neighborhood. For the past four years, they have picked up surplus from Whole Foods each Friday, and from Bluegrass Farmers Market each Saturday during the growing season.

The food is distributed to 20 to 40 people in their neighborhood, including several elderly and shut-in residents. Christian Torp, a lawyer who is on Glean KY’s board, also teaches classes for his neighbors in canning and food preservation.

The Torps hope to train other volunteers to do the same thing in their own neighborhoods. (Those interested in that or other volunteer opportunities can contact the organization at Gleanky.org.)

“It’s not just a handout thing,” Torp said. “Our point in doing this is to build community. It’s a beautiful representation of being neighbors.”

Group helps get homeless people back to work

January 12, 2011

A little more than a week ago, Ted Williams was a homeless panhandler in Columbus, Ohio. Now, he is famous around the world.

A newspaperman’s video of Williams standing at an off-ramp begging for money and a chance to use his “God-given gift of voice” ricocheted around the Internet. Millions have seen the video, and Oprah Winfrey and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team have been among those offering Williams a job.

It is hard to say what made Williams’ video such a sensation. Perhaps it was the irony of hearing such a beautiful voice coming from such a disheveled-looking man. He also spoke with sincerity about wanting to get back to productive work after ruining his life with alcohol and drugs.

Williams’ story is extraordinary. But Ruth Mark knows there are many more people like him — homeless men and women with God-given talents who, with help and encouragement, can realize their dreams of getting off the street and finding work again.

Mark has seen these people every week for the past five years as director of Pyramid Professional Resources. The non-profit organization is housed at Christ Church Cathedral and receives support from several local businesses and six other churches: Southland Christian, Second Presbyterian, Church of the Good Shepherd, Faith Lutheran, Imani Baptist and St. Martha’s Episcopal.

PPR is open three mornings a week for the 20 or so homeless people accepted into its program at any given time. They get a place to shower, do laundry, store belongings and receive mentoring to overcome self-defeating habits, find a job and keep it. PPR’s offices have newspapers, Internet computers, LexTran passes, donated clothing, voice-mail and mailboxes for them to use while job-hunting.

“We do not provide jobs for them, but we provide amenities they need to get jobs,” said Mark, a nurse who also helps clients find treatment for medical problems. PPR operates on an annual budget of only about $15,000; every staff member except the office manager is a volunteer, Mark said.

Williams’ vocal talent might be unusual, Mark said, but his fall from a middle-class lifestyle into homelessness is not. Substance abuse, criminal convictions, health and family problems cost many people their jobs and homes. The slow economic recovery has made it that much harder for them to get back on their feet.

About half of PPR’s 250 clients each year — the vast majority of whom are men — get full-time jobs, although some end up out of work again. Mark estimates that, over the long term, about one-fourth of clients manage to break out of homelessness and support themselves.

“I think this serves a unique subset of people who are genuinely motivated,” volunteer Clay Dorsett said. “So many of them have skills and talents they have effectively used before, but they have fallen on hard times. They just want to get back to using them.”

Jesse Curran, 44, said that describes him. The PPR client from Pennsylvania said he has two associate’s degrees in mechanical engineering and used to do and supervise computer-aided design work at a factory in Versailles. But a few years ago, the work was sent overseas, and Curran lost his job.

“I started drinking a lot,” he said. “I was always an alcoholic, but I finally admitted to the fact.”

Since living for a time at the Hope Center and getting sober, Curran said he has had a lot of part-time and temporary work in everything from fast food to construction, but he can’t find a full-time job.

It doesn’t help that he has a misdemeanor conviction on his record.

“With so many people looking for jobs, (employers) can wait for Mother Teresa,” he said.

Curran earned money shoveling snow earlier this winter, but his feet became frostbitten, and he can’t work much until they heal, he said. He is living temporarily at St. Agnes’ House, an Episcopal mission that provides shelter for sick people.

Like the man in the Internet video, Curran said he has been successful before and is determined to be successful again. He carries around his annual Social Security statement to remind himself how much money he used to earn.

“If you want it bad enough, you can get it,” he said. “I know I just have to keep trying.”

Kindness, help took this hard worker a long way

December 12, 2010

Everyone loves an inspirational story, especially this time of year. You know the kind I mean: A person succeeds against all odds. Someone’s life is changed by acts of kindness. The human spirit is renewed in an unlikely place — say, for instance, a grocery store aisle.

For all of that and more, it would be hard to top Lewis Matherly’s story.

Matherly was born 57 years ago with mental disabilities to an alcoholic mother and a father who soon abandoned them. “A lot of the boys on the street used to pick on Lewis, so my brothers and I would take up for him,” said David Duncan, who lived nearby in the blue-collar neighborhood behind The Red Mile.

When Virginia and Harry Duncan moved their family to a new home on Alexandria Drive, they sometimes returned to Curry Avenue to bring Matherly out to play with their three sons and three daughters.

Beginning at age 7, Matherly did odd jobs and delivered newspapers to earn money. Often, though, his mother took his money to buy herself liquor. As Matherly grew older, their relationship grew worse.

“She booted me out the door when I was 14 and told me to hit the road,” Matherly said. “I was sleeping under a bridge, and it was winter like this.”

Virginia found Matherly under that bridge one night and took him home with her. He has lived with the Duncan family ever since.

School was hard, so Matherly dropped out after the ninth grade and went to work with Harry, a brick mason. “He taught me how to work and make a living,” Matherly said. “He was a good teacher.”

Matherly worked as a mason’s helper with the Duncans and others for more than three decades. “It was hard work, but I liked it,” he said, explaining with pride how much he could do in a day.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s a worker,” said Mike Duncan, another of Matherly’s unofficial brothers. “He was sometimes the only one on a job you didn’t have to tell what to do.”

Harry died in 2002. The construction business slowed, and Matherly found other jobs, with Duncan family members and others. He learned to get around by walking or taking LexTran buses.

But when Virginia died last year, Matherly said he panicked. Angry with God for taking her, he walked out of the house — and kept on walking. After about 10 miles, Matherly said, “The Lord told me to go back home.”

Matherly now lives in Gardenside with one of his unofficial sisters, Kathy Duncan Huggins, and her husband, Andy. “We always told Mom not to worry about Louie; we had his back,” she said. “He’s a joy to have around. He’d do anything for you.”

Matherly wanted to continue working — to be as self-sufficient as possible — but he needed more help than the Duncans could give him. He found it at Employment Solutions Inc., a non-profit organization that helps train and place people who have what social workers call “barriers to employment.”

Staff members assessed Matherly’s skills, got him hearing aids and helped him get a job in October stocking shelves at the Kroger store on Bryan Station Road. Except for the overnight hours, Matherly loves his job.

“They’ve got great people out there,” he said. “They’ve been very patient with me. I’m getting faster now.”

I have always admired Kroger for employing people with special needs. They often put enormous pride and effort into their work.

“It’s a reflection of our company’s desire to have an inclusive culture,” Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk said. Store managers are not required to hire special-needs people, he said, “But many do, because it’s often a win-win situation for Kroger and for the employee.”

Matherly and Kroger were honored last week by Employment Solutions as part of its annual “community partners” luncheon. Dale Walker, of the organization’s Bluegrass Career Services unit, nominated Matherly as the client who most inspired her.

As Walker told Matherly’s story and presented him with a plaque, three of the five surviving Duncan “children” proudly applauded — and tried not to cry.

“We work with a lot of people with harrowing stories,” said Nicole Dummitt, director of Bluegrass Career Services, which helped place about 100 people in Lexington-area jobs over the past year.

“They don’t all come from having lived under a bridge, but they’ve all needed a little help overcoming an obstacle that was keeping them from working,” she said. “Sometimes, just a few little things can make an enormous difference in someone’s life.”