By Jeff Zdrale

If you would have asked me what Riverview Gardens (RG) grows, I would have confidently said, “Why vegetables, of course.” But according to Kate Stel, the organization’s volunteer services coordinator, I would have only been half right.

“We grow people too,” Kate explained. “Our program’s number one purpose is to prepare people, who have been challenged by poverty, homelessness and unemployment, by offering work experiences that will empower them to lead satisfying and responsible lives.”

RSVP member, Bevy Van Daalwyk, picks rattlesnake beans at Riverview Gardens.

That’s where the vegetable part comes in. Starting in 2011, the 72-acre Riverview County Club and golf course was transformed into gardening sites where, since then, thousands of people have learned work and life skills. The keystone program is ServiceWorks.

Kate described this effort.  “ServiceWorks is a multi-faceted combination of financially self-sustaining projects,” she said. “This means that all financial proceeds are put right back into support of the ServiceWorks projects. The Urban Farm uses 15 acres to produce organically grown vegetables. There are 20 hoop houses, passive solar greenhouses that can extend the growing season by several months; and our hydroponic greenhouse is where we grow lettuce.”

I learned that RG has a partnership with Festival Foods. RG lettuce, called “Living Lettuce,” is sold all over the state. They also started working with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin in May. In fact, RG will provide 15,000 pounds of organically grown produce to them this year! Both RG and Feeding America are affiliates of Volunteer Fox Cities, an Appleton nonprofit that connects individuals and businesses to volunteer opportunities.

RG has also diversified its work opportunities to include Maintenance Contracts.  Participants provide off-site cleanup and care services in conjunction with Appleton Downtown, Inc. as well as with other nonprofit groups. Care Teams do the same for non-city properties. They keep things looking clean and cared for throughout the community.

Another offshoot of the ServiceWorks program is Earn-a-Bike. After 15 hours of work, members can get a bike to own, along with a helmet, lock and light. RG also provides maintenance for the bikes as needed.

I wanted to know more about RG’s guidelines. What do you have to do be a part of the ServiceWorks program? Again, Kate was the best person to ask. “We take referrals from organizations that serve at-risk youth and adults, from law enforcement and from transitional living facilities,” she said. “Program participants need to complete 90 hours of service work. There is no time limit for completion. Work skills classes are offered, but not required. RG staff do strive to meet with participants in progress meetings as they work toward ServiceWorks graduation.  After completion, we follow up with our graduates for three years. We assist them in finding and keeping full-time employment.”

As a representative of Retired & Senior Volunteer 55+ Program, which is sponsored by Volunteer Fox Cities, I wanted to learn more about volunteer opportunities at RG. “You have so many people already doing things up there, Kate. Is there any need for regular community volunteers?” Kate assured me that there were.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Our main sites for volunteering are the Urban Farm plots. We have people weeding – no chemicals, remember – picking, washing, sorting and packaging produce. We have volunteers at the hydroponic greenhouse (I learned that this is located in what used to be the country club’s swimming pool!) and at the bike repair shop. Some even help out with the Care Teams downtown.”

Most of the volunteer shifts are from 8 to 11 a.m. or noon to 3 p.m. There is some flexibility, but Stel prefers that people stick to some type of regular schedule. Volunteers can sign up in advance on RG’s website: www.riverviewgardens.org/volunteer.

One lady who gives some of her busy volunteer time to RG is Bevy Van Daalwyk. After retiring from her 45-year career as a nursing assistant at Ascension St. Elizabeth in 2014, Bevy has been sharing her time at the St. Joseph Food Program, Loaves and Fishes of the Fox Valley and RG. She is among 324 members of RSVP who have provided more than 22,000 hours of service to the community this year.

Bevy usually works on Mondays and currently is harvesting beans, radishes, squash and cucumbers. Kate says that she can count on Bevy’s help each week and it is much appreciated.

Like many other service organizations in the Fox Valley, RG has had to make some changes to cope with the COVID virus. Normally, large groups can work in the gardens. RG program participants, people from corporate businesses, volunteers and their families could all join in the work. Now, people work in pairs and are kept at a safe distance from each other. Kate notes that all garden tools are regularly sanitized, as are the restrooms and bug spray containers. Masks are worn unless the workers can remain 6 feet from one another.

In general, the number of volunteers, just like the number of garden groups, has decreased. But that doesn’t mean that RG has stopped seeking volunteers for the jobs that still exist. Kate outlined the process of becoming an RG volunteer.

People can either sign up at the web site (riverviewgardens.org/volunteer) or they can call Kate at 920-378-8527. Prospective volunteers have a brief orientation at the garden sites. RG prefers that volunteers commit to coming on a regular schedule. People can sign up for shifts right on the RG website.  Her goal is that anyone interested in contributing to the mission of RG will be able to find something to do. RG can be entered at 1101 S. Oneida St., Appleton. The farm’s address is 242 W. Seymour St.

A special activity is being planned for Sept. 12 from 8 to 11 a.m. Up to 15 volunteers are welcome to help with RG’s Pitch In day. Preregister here.

So think about helping Riverview Gardens with their growing … both vegetables –  and people!

Editor’s note: Jeff Zdrale is a member of RSVP and also serves on the RSVP Community Council.