By Dawn Hensil, Staff Writer
The City of Shinnston’s AmeriCorps VISTA member, Jon Olsen, helped build a new Shinnston Community Garden during his time in service over the past fourteen months. He hopes the garden will continue to grow — in size and community effort — after he leaves later this month.
“The garden has been one of the proudest things that I have done, and I am very lucky to have had this experience,” he stated, in an interview.
AmeriCorps VISTA members help local organizations, including public agencies and nonprofits, build their capacity to fight poverty, including through volunteer recruitment, fundraising, grant writing, and research, according to the AmeriCorps website. The VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America) began in 1964. AmeriCorps, a federal agency, refers to its VISTA participants as program members.
Shinnston’s AmeriCorps VISTA member, Olsen, was a teacher and a resident of Virginia. For nine years he taught children to speak English in Thailand.
Olsen said he turned his focus to the VISTA program after his sister began working with them out of New York. He filled out an application and chose a location that was closer to his home. That led him to Shinnston.
His original contract was for twelve months, but he applied for an extension to stay for an additional two months.
Olsen’s focus was on beautification and attracting more volunteers to the city. His largest project was the community garden.
Olsen said that some years ago, Shinnston lost its community garden. Over the past year, he worked with other organizers to bring the garden back. His goal was to expand the garden so that more citizens could make use of it.
A portion of the garden is used to supply The Lord’s Pantry with fresh produce for those in need. During this year alone, the garden produced 151 pounds of produce. He hopes that as the garden grows, more produce will go to the pantry.
He also worked to plan raised garden beds to rent out to individuals who would like to grow their own produce. There are five raised beds available. Five beds will be built this spring, he said.
Olsen said that he would have loved to have done more, but he was still extremely proud of what the small group of volunteers was able to produce.
Olsen said Try This WV awarded the group a $3,000 grant to help fund the community garden. Try This WV is focused on health and wellness in the state of West Virginia.
He said Walmart donated lumber for the project and the local Boy Scouts have committed to building the raised beds. Rent for the raised beds will be $15 a year. Anyone who would be interested in renting a raised garden bed can call the city office at 304-592-2126 for more information.
Olsen has also been working on a live nativity at the Community Garden. Warrior’s Chapel donated and built the manger, he said. Live nativity scenes will take place on Friday evenings.
Kim Southern, owner of the Shinnston Subway, donated a new sign for the garden, which reads: “Shinnston Community Garden” and “Lee Reger’s Vision Continues.”
Olsen wanted to thank others for their involvement, including Kathleen Panek for all her tireless work, as well as Beth Nuzum. He said Phillis Reger, whose husband Lee originally started the garden, is thrilled to see his vision and memory survive.
He is working to leave a blueprint for the Community Garden so that it can continue to expand. He suggested that in the future, volunteers could plant fruit trees, available for anyone walking down the street to be able to stop and pick some fruit.
Olsen plans to stay in touch after his time with Shinnston is over. His time with Shinnston ends on Dec. 22.