by Pat Munts

During the growing season, they gather nearly every morning and evening to tend their gardens. They laugh and joke in Russian and Ukrainian, sharing hoses, watering plots. A few young children run about, encircling their grandparents. After they finish their chores, they gather in the garden's central shelter for more conversation as they await the cool of the evening. The women wear head scarves and long skirts.

While this might seem to be a garden somewhere in Russia or Ukraine, 10,000 miles away, in reality it's at the Northeast Community Center in Spokane's Hillyard neighborhood. Here a couple dozen families have taken over a half-acre-plus piece of rocky land owned by the city and developed it into a series of raised beds overflowing with tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, onions, carrots, dill, squash and berries. Over the past five years, they have painstakingly built up their 15-by-40-foot beds with compost, enabling them to raise enough food not only for their own families but for the rest of the community as well.

This group of gardeners is a small segment of the nearly 20,000 Slavic people who now call Spokane home. They have come from all corners of the old USSR -- the new Russia, now-independent Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, even Poland and other Eastern European countries. They came to find opportunity, to get away from urban and rural poverty, to gain religious freedom. Some came to escape the radiation contamination created by the Chernobyl disaster.

A few of the gardeners have been here for 10 years, others for only a year or two. Their lives are very different now. Tatyana Bistrevsky, program assistant and Russian translator for the WSU Spokane County Extension Office, expresses for them the challenges they feel in overcoming the language barrier. Amid all this cultural confusion, the garden is a touchstone of familiarity.

Before the breakup of the former USSR, most people who lived in the cities had their country getaway places, or "dachas." Far from fancy, they were often very small shed-like places that their owners surrounded with vegetable gardens. They grew as much as they could to lay in for the long, cold Russian winter, when fresh vegetables become unaffordable or simply unattainable. They shared with their extended families and friends.

This group cultivates its garden with practically no outside resources, save some assistance in building the garden shelter and in first bringing a waterline to the garden. Yet they give their extra produce to their families and friends and even have an enough to donate to the Northeast Pantry.

Last year in Spokane, 13,000 people a month collected emergency food boxes from local food banks. Of those recipients, 44 percent were children. Fresh fruit and vegetables were often the most eagerly awaited items.

Following the lead of our resourceful Slavic gardeners, if you are being overrun with tomatoes, corn and squash right now, take them to your local food bank. If you have fruit trees with tasty crops of fall fruit or potatoes, winter squash and carrots that will ripen later, set aside some for the food bank. Your reward will not only be knowing you helped out it will also be a warm smile from someone who will have a meal of fresh, healthy food that night.

You don't have to have a huge garden to help out. Even a small amount is appreciated. While sturdy vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and squash do hold up better to transport and distribution, any fresh vegetable or fruit is welcome. As many of the food banks do not have cold storage facilities, leafy and tender vegetables like spinach, lettuce and herbs are best donated on the same days as food distribution takes place. Because many of the small food banks are not open every day, it's a good idea to check on the times they are accepting donations before you go.

This year, 19 emergency food box outlets in the Spokane area are officially part of the Plant A Row For The Hungry campaign. The PAR program is a national campaign of the Garden Writers Association and is supported locally by the Inland Empire Gardeners. Last year, Spokane gardeners donated 5,840 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Second Harvest Food Bank has a list of the participating outlets accepting fresh food donations (tax-deductible at $1.50 per pound). Call: 534-6678 ext. 208. Or visit: Join with the gardeners of the Northeast Community Center to help your neighbors. As they would say with a big smile, "spaseba, bolshoy spaseba" ("thank you, thank you very much").

Hillyard Festival @ Hillyard

Through Aug. 9
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