Warning: this post is a BEAST.

Greetings Grow Appalachians! Holly here checking in from Grow Appalachia HQ. It’s been a heck of a week, folks. When I started my VISTA term of service I really didn’t have any set expectations, other than to have none, because we are rarely undertaking the same tasks twice in any given week, unless you count blogging.  However, any preconceived “expectations” I once had are not what they used to be, and that is due to what took place this week.  My body is tired (hence the large coffee that’s about finished), but my spirit is soaring.

On Monday Mark and I packed up and took to the open road.  We included in our luggage GA’s new “baby”, a Canon EOS Rebel t3i.  I will provide a quick disclaimer: I do apologize for the sheer volume of pictures; I was entrusted with this new “baby”, and I may have gotten a bit carried away.  Or not.  Anyway, our destination: the Abingdon, Virginia/Bristol, Tennessee area, where we met up with our good friends at Appalachian Sustainable Development, headed up by Deni Peterson (whom I’m certain many of you are familiar with).  The task ahead was to build two high tunnels for them, on the property of a local church.  The project was conceived by Tom Hanlon, who has worked very closely with ASD in establishing the community gardens, as well as the partnership with the Tennessee High  School.  Eventually, the church will contain a certified kitchen, and students with special needs (from Tennessee High School) will come to the kitchen and, using food from the gardens and tunnels, learn basic cooking skills and prepare lunches for senior citizens and other community members.  These students already are active in the community gardens that have been set up through ASD.  We arrived mid-afternoon Monday (after ending up in the wrong town!), and were met with a small crowd of VERY enthusiastic folks, ready to jump in and get the process going.  Needless to say, we didn’t want to keep them waiting, so we got started right away!  Yes, even after driving for four hours, we started working!  That first day was the “grunt work”, so to speak, in that the first component of high tunnel building is hammering in ground posts.  We had 44 to get into place, and right from the get-go, we had a lot of help!  The students were not set to help until the next day, so it was a great opportunity to learn about the program and get to know the volunteers, many of which not only helped for the rest of the week, but some were the teachers of the students.  What a big-hearted and kind group of folks!  It was there that I also learned the term “DQ”, which stands for “drama queen”, which became a long-running joke throughout the week- one that I also intend to use whenever the opportunity is fit.  Anyway, by the end of the first quarter-ish day we had all the ground posts into place, a task that took just about 2.5 hours!  The sense of pride and high morale was infectious already; we were all anticipating a full day of work!

Day 1, Tuesday, began bright and early (ok….not too early, but early enough for a non-morning person such as myself).  The morning air was crisp, with a slight chill, a sure sign of the beautiful day to come.  The first group of students were set to arrive at about 8, about 10 in total.  Tennessee High School, fortunately, is within walking distance of the work site, so imagine our surprise when we see these students bounding to the site, smiles as bright as the sun!  It definitely helped to take a little of that chill out of the air.  They took to helping Mark unload the hoops and getting them into place.  With their help the hoops went up in virtually no time at all!

We only had the students for about an hour or so at a time (they were helping us during their school time….um, awesome, right?!), so after that some students left, some remained, and another group came in.  Next was setting the baseboards; again, the students helped unload and distribute the lumber, and some even helped with the drilling.  It was so heartwarming to see such strong relationships between these students and the volunteers; Tom literally knows every students’ name and story.

By then, we had only been working about 2 hours, but we now had a “skeleton”, so to speak, consisting of the hoops and baseboards.  The process was going so much faster than anticipated.  What really struck me, almost from the beginning, was the students’ willingness to not only help us, but one another as well.  You don’t really see much of that nowadays.  Of course, with each new group of students coming and going, we had to partake in a group picture.

First group of students after a good morning of work!

First group of students after a good morning of work!

Oh, it's me, the face behind the camera! (Mark took this)

Oh, it’s me, the face behind the camera! (Mark took this one)

The next step in the building process was getting the ridge pole into place.  For these tunnels, we decided against the Gothic style (as seen at Greenhouse 17), and went for the Quonset design, which, if I’m not mistaken, is found at the rest of our site with tunnels except GH17.  Let me tell you, the ridge pole for this design is SO much simpler than the Gothic…no vegetable oil required (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist)!!  All that is needed for this particular ridge pole is a set of clamps at the top, and a simple bolt/washer/nut system.  Again, with the number of students helping us, the pole went up in little time.  Amazing what you can accomplish with a few extra hands and a little enthusiasm!  Or, in this case, quite a bit of enthusiasm!  Seriously, you couldn’t help but get excited right along with them!

Second group of students, along with some of the volunteers

We were student-less for a time at this point, so Mark and several of the community volunteers went to work  in getting the purlins in place.  It was here that I also continued getting to know these wonderful volunteers.  They were keenly interested in where Mark and I came from, Grow Appalachia as a whole, and my position as a VISTA.  Plus, on a bit of a silly and/or lighthearted note, twins!!! Deni has twins, one of the volunteers has twins, and I’m a twin myself!  It really is a small world.  It was incredible to hear these folk’s stories and how they ended up getting involved in this project.  Man, Tom sure does have some connections, that’s for sure!  We spent the rest of the morning at the purlins, chatting away as if we were with long-lost friends.  I must say, good company makes the work day nothing like a “daily grind” that we are all sometimes accustomed to.

After lunch, we had more students arrive (close to 10 again, but these were serving on a student leadership council), so they were tasked with setting the hipboards and wire framing.  Not many of these students had even used a drill before, but they were willing to learn.  Well…some of them, anyway; a few were apprehensive and had to be persuaded, but there was plenty of moral support to go around.  Like I mentioned earlier, it is something else, truly, to see students not only willing to help us, but one another also.  These students stayed a bit longer (about an hour and a half), so by 2:30 we had an almost entire structure, minus plastic.  They were good kids; I enjoyed working with them.  It’s great to see younger generations stepping up into community leadership roles.  There were also smaller tasks at hand, such as cutting the wire framing down,  cutting the ridge post down, and cutting the headboard pieces.  Which, actually, I got to help with!  Not an easy task, mind you, but don’t they always make it look so easy?

One quick note I forgot to mention: sometimes there was such a large group of students that not all of them had a task, so Deni came up with the idea of collecting acorns, which would come back to Berea with Mark and I for Mark to feed to his pigs.  She was sort of half-joking about, but, unsurprisingly, the students got really into it.  (Side note: I asked Mark this morning if the pigs enjoyed the acorns.  They did!  Way to go, gang!)

After that, we were student-less for the rest of the day, so it was all systems go for everyone involved.  It was a busy afternoon: securing the headboards, attaching the wire framing to the top hoops and cutting down where needed, digging spots for the future door posts and frame (we use a sliding door system), and finally, creating the door frame.  By the end of the work day we had an entire structure in place, minus plastic.  As I mentioned earlier, the company was wonderful, so naturally the afternoon flew by.  There was so much excitement to be felt at the end of the day’s work!  Keep in mind we started the day with ground posts in place and nothing else.  We definitely had much to be proud of.   To be honest, I couldn’t believe how much we had accomplished either.  So many willing hands- it was excellent!


Mark is contemplating the door frame.

Mark is contemplating the door frame.

All in a day's work!

All in a day’s work!

Day 2, Wednesday.  The morning was slightly warmer than previous, and morale was sky-high in light of the previous day’s work!  Today was plastic placement day.  Up until this day, I had seen the tunnel construction process; from here on out was new for me as well, so I felt like I too was learning, just like the students and volunteers.  Like Tuesday, we had several students first thing in the morning, perhaps even more eager to help; they saw the work that had taken place and were beyond ready to keep working!  The students really seemed to enjoy putting the plastic up and over the tunnel; in spite of it all I enjoyed it as well.  It was almost like one streamlined fluid motion, and then suddenly- it actually looked like a greenhouse, something more than just a shell!


The plastic crew!


After the plastic was in place, it was wiggle wire time!  Remember the wire base framing from earlier (it sits on top of the hipboards)?  This is where the wiggle wire comes in- you “wiggle” the wire up and down, back and forth, and it keeps the plastic secure, without having to punch holes into it.  Pretty nifty system.  Although that last edge of wiggle wire is brutal- be prepared for some bruised tips of fingers…trust me on this one.  Naturally, the students got into the wiggle wiring also; the technique was shown and they caught on rather quickly!  In order to fully secure the plastic,  wiggle wire has to be incorporated into both sides, as well as up and around the front and back hoops.

I really love this shot.

In order to allow for ventilation during the summer, like the Gothic design, these tunnels also have roll-up sides.  The students helped get the “curtain rods” put together (sorry for my casual jargon), and they were completely spellbound at the crank/lever system.

Curtains are ready for action!

Curtains are ready for action!

Wire base was set around the door, so that both sides were covered with plastic; like the gothic tunnel, the back portion of plastic can be removed during the summer, if desired.  At the baseboards, we secured eyebolts, again using a simple washer/nut system, and these eyebolts become part of a “laced” mechanism that serves as a sort of brace for the curtains when they’re rolled down (more pictures to come on that later).

Here is the "brace" for the curtains.

Here is the “brace” for the curtains.

All that remained at this point were the doors!  Mark and Jonah (one of our help) disappeared to the parking lot of the church in order to build out the doors.  I wandered back and forth from there to the site, where Deni and a couple of the volunteers were finishing up wiggle-wiring everything.  By this point, we were getting towards the end of construction.  The doors were really the biggest piece of the high tunnel puzzle left.  We finished wiring all plastic, so we walked the site and picked up any stray pieces, hardware, plastic, so as not to disturb any critters, fellow gardeners, lawnmowers, that sort of thing.  The doors are comprised of a wooden frame (seen below) and double-layered polycarbonate plastic that is drilled into place.  They are attached to two hanging bolts inside the door frame of the tunnel and secured with a bolt/washer/nut system, which turns them into sliding doors.

Behold, the lovely door models Mark and Jonah (I could not resist such a shot)

Deni getting the plastic onto the door

With a few more digs, a team effort in laboriously tearing off labeling from the polycarbonate, some last-minute screws drilled in, and some final adjustments, the doors were in!  By 5:00 Wednesday, we were completely finished.  2 tunnels built in 2 days!

One door in place!

Some final digging/adjustments…

They are finished!!

They are finished!!

Friends, if I could put into words at just how impacting and incredible this week was for me, I would be at a loss.  I believe I’ve completely failed to do so in this blog post; the words simply escape me.  If it had not been for the infectious enthusiasm and sheer willingness of the volunteers and students, I don’t think we would have accomplished nearly as much as we did.  I thoroughly enjoyed working with the students and volunteers.  It was so inspiring to see a wide variety of personalities, ages, and abilities all united towards one common goal: to build these tunnels that will go on to serve their beloved community for years to come.  Hopefully. the students  will acquire skills needed to succeed in society, which I believe many are well on their way in doing just that: succeeding.  I imagine many of these students have been told “You can’t” for the majority of their lives, restricted by their disability, by confines you would find just about anywhere, you name it.  But this past week, we encouraged them, we helped them, we showed them, and told them, “You can.”  Also inspiring was hearing the testimonials from the teachers: some of the students, so I heard, were sometimes not the best behaved in the classroom.  But being out in the community, working with the community, it was “good for them”.  I definitely bore witness to that.   It was good for me too; I’ll carry those smiles with me as I continue my year of service, and beyond.

The folks at Appalachian Sustainable Development are doing incredible work, and I am so privileged and honored to have been a part of it.  I can’t wait to see what becomes of these tunnels; I know they will be put to good use, and I know the folks were eager to receive them.  Thank you, ASD, for ALL of your help!  I hate to use a cliche, but we really could not have done it without you and your volunteers.  Please know that you have a lot to be proud of, because I am immensely inspired at the work going on!    You all were an absolute joy!

On an unrelated note, I may have had a small hand in convincing Mark to let us stay in Abingdon for another night, since we were finished with construction.  Hey, the hotel was already paid for!  Plus, I can’t speak for Mark and the rest of the team, but I was sure ready for another night of rest.  I will admit, it was a bit of a challenge going into the office this morning…


ASD team, Mark and I and the rest of GA HQ can’t wait for a tunnel blog post!  Enjoy them!

No DQs here! L- R: me (Holly), Deni, Mark, Jonah, volunteer John, and Tom