Volunteer Work Party at La Esperanza Farm

Photo by Shawn Linehan

To get you excited for this weekend's Work Party at La Esperanza Farm, we're re-posting this Oregon Live article about the last volunteer day we held at La Esperanza.

By Molly Harbinger, The Oregonian, Sunday, April 1, 2012

The drizzle throughout the day was not the problem. The problem was the days of rain preceding Saturday, which flooded the fields of La Esperanza farm in Forest Grove.

Still, clad in raincoats and galoshes, 20 members of Portland's Confluence Environmental Center's AmeriCorps program, and some staff, celebrated Cesar Chavez's birthday on Saturday by volunteering to perform odd jobs on the farm.

Renate Dietrich, 50, kept up a stream of chatter as she uprooted Himalayan blackberries like she hardly realized she was working. The task falls in line with her day job through AmeriCorps; she works for Gresham as an urban invasive species specialist. One of the older members of the group, she is familiar first-hand with Chavez's contributions to labor and civil rights movements.

"I remember boycotting grapes, I remember boycotting lettuce," she said in between thumps of her shovel.

AmeriCorps holds two national service days, on Cesar Chavez Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Karin Pfeiffer-Hoyt, 30, is serving her AmeriCorps year with Adelante Mujeres, a Forest Grove nonprofit that provides education and vocational help to Latina women and their families, and suggested the farm as a project.

One of the organization's initiatives is Adelante Agricultura, which teaches people organic farming and sets them up with a quarter-acre plot of land at La Esperanza farm.

Pfeiffer-Hoyt helps the farmers plan their plot and sell their produce through local farmers markets, coordinates volunteers and seed orders, and developed a record-keeping system for the farm's organic certification -- a little bit of everything, she said.

"I love working with people, and I love farming, so this was a great combination of the two," she said.

She made a list of projects for the Saturday volunteer day, but threw it out once the farm flooded.

"It's a good lesson in farming," Pfeiffer-Hoyt said. "Because sometimes you can plan, but you don't know what will happen."

The volunteers are eager learners. With the promise of tamales for lunch, they enthusiastically moved through the tasks. They also asked tons of questions of Anne Morse, outreach and marketing coordinator for Adelante Agricultura, who introduced the farm and its work after the group ate a vegan breakfast – following Chavez's chosen diet.

"I think this offers a really cool model of growing and supporting a small business," said Sam Schongalla, 26, whose AmeriCorps job is with Columbia Slough Watershed Council.

Schongalla sat out of the rain with a handful of volunteers, folding seed pots out of old newspapers and filling them with dirt. The AmeriCorps volunteers meet twice a week, so they talk and laugh with the ease of friends in a unique situation.

"It's like getting your first job, but with a group of 20 people who are also going through the same thing," said Melissa Balding, 25, who works with the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability.

The Confluence Environmental Center is in its first year and its small staff is trying to earn nonprofit status. The AmeriCorps program is just one component of what they want the center to be.

Currently, the staff places workers, who are paid a small stipend, into pilot projects in either Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas or Yamhill counties. Program support coordinator Sherrie Jackson said it's a way for organizations or cities to try something that might not usually be funded and for the members to take a stab at environmental work.

Director Lara Jones said about 75 percent of the program graduates go into environmental work. Plus, at the end of the program, AmeriCorps helps pays off their student loans or gives them money for continuing education.

"It's a way to pay for your education in a really great way," Jackson said.

The Confluence Environmental Center especially targets minorities and low-income populations, so the chosen work day project to honor Chavez was a natural.

"This was a good link to who he was as a leader and what they do here," Jackson said.

-- Molly Harbarger: 503-294-5923