Vertical Garden Bears More than Fruit

Jessica Holmes and Tenisha Bolds

Bolds and Holmes created a vertical garden for LearnLinks students and their families

Tenisha Bolds works with kids in the LearnLinks after school tutoring program, at an apartment community owned and operated by Human Solutions in East Portland. One of the things she’s been thinking about is: How to indulge her young students’ love for fresh fruits and vegetables?

It’s a problem many parents would love to have, but for Bolds – a Health and Wellness Specialist – the challenge took a creative turn: Now she and her colleague, Resource Specialist Jessica Holmes, are growing a vertical garden packed with vegetables and herbs, and bringing the produce to the families they work with.

And they’re thinking about how to launch a cooking show on YouTube to help their participants’ families create their own delicious, fresh meals from scratch.

About 138 kids show up – now virtually – at LearnLinks every week to get help with their schoolwork. The idea behind the program is to provide family support for public school students in Human Solutions’ affordable housing communities to thrive in the classroom.

Good nutrition is covered within a unit in the science curriculum. Bolds says when she asked the kids in her k-8th grade program at Lincoln Woods apartments what vegetables they liked, the answer was: kale. And that answer became an inspiration for more science lessons.

“Then we started talking about growing some vegetables and bringing them in,” Holmes says. At first they tried regular gardening at the apartment complex, but space was limited. “So we decided to start vertical growing.”

The technique is ancient — think Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But in modern times, new growing structures are easy to find online and fun to build; Holmes and Jones started their seeds in hanging structures and then planted the emerging sprouts in an array of planter boxes in Bolds’ backyard.

The “babies,” as Bolds calls the plants, have included a farm’s-worth of crops.

“We’ve got carrots, onions, eggplant, corn and cucumbers. Then we have peppermint, chamomile, chives, oregano, let me see what else? We also have parsley, we have lavender and we have basil. Then there’s also cabbage, kale, rosemary, hot peppers, brussels sprouts, cilantro, bok choy, thyme, and sweet peppers so far. Oh and honeydew, because the kids love honeydew.”

Bolds’ parents also have green thumbs: her father tends a vegetable garden on his patio and her mother raises houseplants. Years ago, her mother shared a secret tip on how to keep the greenery growing:

“My mom says you have to talk to the plants or they won’t come up, so I’m out here all the time, just talking,” Bolds says. “And I play music for them – they like all kinds of music. And I swear it works – because the corn was the smallest and now they are an inch tall!”

Holmes says the idea was inspired by a cooking and nutrition training she and Bolds attended together.

“This program is important to me because when I participated in a health and nutrition class and learned about all of the additives they put in the food, it scared me,” Holmes said. “Also, I love the fact that we can eat food that we’ve grown ourselves.”

“We are all organic,” Bolds says. “We used no chemicals, because the class we got certified in taught us all about what the chemicals do, and it’s also changed our eating habits.”

Bolds says the most important part about the project is bringing healthy produce into families’ homes. While the LearnLinks program is for kids, in practice the teachers connect with their families, too, since families are an essential part of children’s learning.

“It’s natural, it’s coming from the garden, and it’s a shame that more people don’t know how to grow their own food,” Holmes says.

Next, Bolds and Holmes are working to create recipes for their program using food box ingredients mixed with the bounty from their garden. The food boxes are part of the USDA program distributed through the Sunshine Division and through a grant from Windermere.

“We can make the same things that our program participants can make, because they’re going to have the same ingredients,” Bolds says.

“But they don’t have access to a lot of fresh vegetables, so we made sure to grow enough vegetables so they have some, too.”

Bolds credits her Human Solutions Program Manager Tonya Parson for offering support – even successfully pursuing a grant from the Portland Children’s Levy – to help make it possible.

“Since I love gardening and the kids are always asking for fruits and vegetables, me and Tonya came up with the idea,” Bolds says. “Now she told me about vertical growing, and then I took it from there and I started growing in the vertical growers.”

And as the lush little plants are bursting with life in the fence in Bolds’ own yard, she and Holmes are moving ahead with big plans-inspired in part by the any nationalities of their students, whose families hail from Somalia, Kenya, Haiti, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico, Guatemala, Ukraine, and Russia.

To grow their nutrition curriculum further, Bolds says she and Holmes are working on expanding their video skills to launch their own cooking show on YouTube. As part of the LearnLinks Virtual Summer School over the past few months, they and their team members took a crash course in Google Classroom, weaving in YouTube videos where they could but also learning basic video for themselves.

The duo has moved from vegetables to science and video technology – and back to vegetables – in the space of one summer.

“So since me and Tonya originally started talking about it, my thing is that every month we would do foods of a different nationality – so like one month it would be Asian, maybe Turkish, Somalian,” Bolds says.

“So I’ve been looking at different recipes like cabbage wraps – that’s Italian. I’m going to try to make that so that I can teach people how to make them. But I found a whole lot of different recipes from different cultures that we can make, plus I love to cook.”

Holmes agrees.

“I just love cooking with fresh ingredients, and it’s actually pretty fun and exciting to see your progress,” Holmes says. “Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy job – but it’s very rewarding.”

Aside from Holmes and Parson, Bolds’ biggest supporter is her daughter Tai’ Ana Williams, who has helped plant, weed and water the vertical garden.

Williams has her own take on the project:

“It’s about bonding,” she says. “Growing things, you have to bond with your plants, you have to talk to them and stuff. And then when you’re planting them and you’re bonding with them, it makes you feel special because you’re doing it. I feel like it would be better for everyone to plant their own things so that they could feel special and know that they’re doing it not only for themselves, but for others as well.”

At Human Solutions, we’re building a community where all people can share in the security, hopes and advantages of a thriving, supportive community. Projects like this garden are a wonderful example of how we all benefit when we do things that are part of something larger than ourselves.

Tickets: An Evening with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

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From Shawna: August Volunteers are All About Action!

I hope this note finds you and yours healthy and well. These are challenging times for all of us, in different ways. In the midst of all the distress in our community, something that remains incredibly heartening is the way people keep showing up. In addition to working directly with those in need, we are also working to build a supportive community where we all play a role in ensuring everyone can thrive – and the housing and economic justice that underpins health, well-being and, yes, the pursuit of happiness.

All that said, I am writing to share some fun news and invite you to help out as we meet our community’s needs. One thing we have heard over and over from those volunteering and donating important items: it sustains them, too, providing meaning when we aren’t always sure how to be useful.


Partnerships Make It Possible

We are so grateful for our partnerships with the Sunshine Division, the Portland Police Bureau’s charity arm, and the Hood to Coast COVID response team. Together we have been providing free fresh food boxes – filled with produce, dairy and meat – to 150 families in our affordable housing communities every week. In July, our generous friends at Titan Freight – including Keith Wilson and his daughter Lily, pictured here with a lot of new friends they met while social distancing – picked up and delivered the boxes to several locations. It really does take a village.

This fresh food box program is one of several new partnerships that are helping us increase resources available to our program participants. Big thanks this month also go to Eastside Starbucks and Red Lobster, who are stepping up to share food with our networks. 76 BBQ, a SE Portland food cart, is cooking for us weekly now, and Portland Rescue Mission continues to be an incredible partner, feeding our shelter residents from their own job training program. We feel fortunate to have such generous and caring partners in this difficult moment.


Meet Brielle, Our Newest Team Member!

Welcome to Brielle Jones, our new Volunteer & In-Kind Donations Specialist! You may have met Brielle at our Powell Blvd. office reception desk, where she has been fielding calls for assistance and helping to manage our offices. We are thrilled that she is joining our team this month, working with me so we can expand our volunteer and in-kind donation opportunities and better meet the needs of our community. Welcome, Brielle! When you  contact Human Solutions, you’ll be working with one of us to find the right volunteer opportunity.


New COVID Shelter for Women-Identifying, Non-Binary & Gender Queer Folks

As you may be aware, our 90-bed women’s shelter is a group setting, so to meet social distancing requirements during COVID we have worked with Multnomah County to reduce the number of people staying there. To continue sheltering 90 people, we opened a new motel location for 60 people where they can have their own room and bath, a safer layout for those vulnerable to COVID. We are working closely with the new shelter team to find out what they need in the way of volunteer help. The new location is near Mall 205 in East Portland, in case that’s convenient for you. You can read about this new shelter and two others the County is opening in this press release.


Summertime = Sewing Time!

There are several active, local quilting/sewing communities supporting our work, bringing everything from scarves and COVID masks to beautiful home-made blankets all year round. This month we have a special shout-out to Gladstone Church of the Nazarene, who donated over 30 quilts – plus a pile of hats and scarves for our family shelter. It may not be cold right now, but it will be before we know it.

This cheerful team had already donated once, but realized they had more to give, so they circled back and added to their offerings!  HUGE thanks to all the crafters and sewing-machine artists for your work, your commitment and your heart! We’ve lost count of how many lovingly sewn COVID masks you have given for residents of our shelters and affordable housing communities.


Special Kudos

With big love and thanks, we bid a fond farewell to our rockstar volunteer Sara De La Torre Rust (pictured here with her husband Jacob), who worked with us for several months as she completed her studies at Portland State University. Sara made a name for herself when she repeatedly helped pick up food donations for our shelters — at odd hours and at zero moments’ notice! Thanks, Sara! You will be missed.

(Could you fill these shoes? We always need folks who can pick up and deliver food and other donations – on call or regularly. It’s a low-contact way to volunteer during COVID. Call or text me @ 503.278.1637 and find out how you can help

Ready to Help? Great. Let’s Get Started…

I check in weekly – sometimes daily – with our emergency shelter managers and resident services team at our 17 affordable housing communities. That way, I can share with you what their top needs are now. Here’s what they’re telling me this month:

  • Bath towels
  • Bed linens (twin, queen)
  • COVID masks
  • Drivers to pick up and deliver donations – on-call or regularly.
  • Group dinners (for 40, 60, or 120 people)
  • Sack lunches
  • Toiletries (razors, travel-size soap, shampoo & conditioner, hand sanitizer)

If you’ve been looking for a way to make a difference and feel more connected to your community, this could be just the thing! Contact me to learn more, or sign up today: 503.278.1637 or


Save the Date: A Virtual Conversation with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

We hope you’ll join us on the evening of October 1st for a very timely virtual art performance and conversation about being anti-racist. We are thrilled to be hosting brilliant thought leader Dr. Ibram X. Kendi  (“How to Be An Anti-Racist,” among other books and articles) and Portland City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty, longtime policy reform activist who also serves as our Board Vice-President. Details to come. For now, please mark your calendar for 6-7:30 PM on Thursday, October 1, 2020. It should a thought-provoking event for all of us.

Thank you, as always, for all the wonderful contributions you are making these days. It’s meeting needs and spreading joy around East Portland / East Multnomah County, one of the hardest hit areas in the state during this health and economic pandemic.

Yours in community,

Shawna Hoffman, Volunteer & In-Kind Donations Coordinator

PS – Short on time but still want to help? You can make a financial contribution right here 24/7. THANKS FOR ALL YOU DO!