Step by Step, the nonprofit that sponsors Big Ugly Creek’s Grow Appalachia project, celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer in a community picnic that brought staff, volunteers and participants from the full quarter century of programs. Besides transforming the “healthy foods” capacity of community events, Grow Appalachia came up repeatedly during the day.


First, as is first complained and last remembered at most community events, we should talk about food.  Fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions for the burgers—fresh corn from the outdoor grill—no complaints about the menu, which is all the more remarkable because we complemented home grown vegetables with whole wheat hamburger buns and no sugar drinks. (probably the first community event at Big Ugly without Mountain Dew in its 25 years). The fresh veggies were so good, people were willing to tolerate the “health nut” staples (with thanks to our participation in Keys 4 Healthy Kids, a grant we received by building on our accomplishments and dreams from Grow Appalachia.)


Second, as we highlighted programs, old and new, we were able to reflect on how much we’d grown on supporting healthy food in the community through the program.  While we have been committed to full meals whenever possible in our children’s programs (since 1995, long before the federal food program reimbursed for full suppers after school), there has been a buzz about what we are doing with food in the last two years. Its there in the children’s pride in the raised beds around the Center, and the theme gardens (Alice in Wonderland, and the children’s book about rabbits organizing to outwit an exploitative bear, Tops and Bottoms,).


It’s there in the Junior Master Gardener lessons being among the most loved from the summer. It’s there in people talking about our first Farmers Market on Big Ugly (another all healthy snacks event) in July. It’s there in our hope that we have raised enough potatoes to have all home grown fresh potatoes at our fifteenth annual Thanksgiving community dinner and banish packaged and processed veggies for good from our major events. It’s there in our greenhouse (which Grow Appalachia Director David Cooke helped build when he was a “Big Ugly man” (a resident of Big Ugly Creek—no further comment) but at various times has regressed to being a strange looking front porch—finally being used for its purpose—growing a good thousand plants this spring and summer.


And it’s there in the story of the person who won the “longest term program participant” in programs at the Center, Jessica Workman, who had the distinction of being involved with the Center since it began in 1995 when Jessie was five.


Jessie’s family helped pilot the literacy lessons that became an AmeriCorps program, APPALREAD, that ran for eleven years in southern West Virginia. She was part of our first after school program, first summer program, and participated in youth leadership initiatives (visiting veterans hospitals, mentoring younger children, taking Thanksgiving meals, Valentine’s day baskets, and mother’s and father’s day plants to seniors and other shut ins) throughout her school years.


Since graduation, Jessie has served as a summer Americorps member, a summer VISTA, an after school instructor and currently is part of our three member team coordinating Grow Appalachia.  Jessie knows everyone on the Creek so she knows how to get someone some extra help if they are in need (like the call that went out for plants and gardens after one of our more successful partner’s garden was wiped out in a flash flood).  Her family has raised most of their food all her life so the tips she provides new gardeners are credible.  That same family was the first and most successful of our partners to try marketing their yield this year (what they didn’t give away, they have been sharing their bounty with others for years).


The great pleasure of being in a community and involved with children’s programs for the long haul is watching people like Jessie grow up, stretch beyond their parents’ dreams, and reach for their own.  Jessie was our go to person in getting a community elder to come in and do a workshop on challenging gardening issues (like how to start your own sweet potato plants).  We fully anticipate that one day she will be that elder, guiding the next generation (as she has already started doing as our Junior Master Gardner instructor) and keeping generations of knowledge, nurture, and hospitality alive.


Our hearts are indeed full.


Michael Tierney