BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Sophia, a second-grader at Marshall Elementary in Byron Center, learned how to grow her own vegetables this year in her school garden, and will get to see the fruits of her labor when she returns in the fall for the third grade.
“I just love being out in nature, and I really love to feed people,” she explained.
She’s proud of what she’s done through the H.O.P.E. Gardens program, even if she doesn’t yet realize the impact of her work.
Julie Brunson and her husband, Rich, know better than most why it’s so important to empower others to grow their own fresh food. They both experienced food insecurity. For Rich Brunson, it was when he was in the eighth grade and his mom died. He eventually became homeless when his stepfather kicked him out.
“As I started getting on my feet I thought, ‘Why is it so hard to eat?’ I didn’t understand,” he said.
From that moment, an idea was born: Helping Other People Eat, also known as H.O.P.E.
“I thought, ‘One day, I’ll be able to help someone.’ It was like a wakeup call,” Rich Brunson said.
Not long after that, Rich Brunson met Julie, who understood the struggle. Her mom was a single parent of seven children, doing the best she could in a difficult situation.
“When you’re on assistance, to get fruits and vegetables, even to grow your own food would have been helpful,” Julie Brunson said.
Thirty years later, their goal has become a reality with the H.O.P.E Gardens program. Julie and the rest of the program members install community gardens in places where access, finances, and time are barriers to healthy and affordable food. They give gardening workshops and support for people starting their own home gardens. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of their organization involves school education programs — helping students to plant and tend a garden, and giving related biology lessons.
“We like the food to go to the kids because we want them to experience from seed to plate,” explained Julie Brunson. “We even have a chef come in or we’ll cook it for them or do a cooking demonstration, or they’ll just eat it right out of the garden, which is the best thing.”
The Brunsons developed an extensive curriculum that meets current educational standards. They donate the extra produce they grow to local food pantries.
It’s quite a turnaround for the couple.
“We used Buist Community Food Assistance Center ([at one time) and now we are donating to Buist with school gardens. So it’s kinda cool,” Julie Brunson said.
Julie Brunson said an incident several years ago spurred them to transform that seed of a dream to help others into a full-fledged program.
Rich Brunson got a concussion at work and could no longer work, which put them in a difficult situation financially. For Rich Brunson, it was also an emotional downfall.
“I thought, ‘Well I can’t run a business anymore. I can’t even answer the phone, at the time. Who am I now?’ When I thought I had nothing to offer because I couldn’t sign my name, couldn’t read, she just took off,” Rich said of his wife spearheading H.O.P.E. Gardens.
Julie Brunson says she pursued creating the program because Rich found peace sitting in the garden. She recognized others may also find fulfillment there.
“They see something they planted from seed grow. And then they’re like — maybe they feel like a failure or their life kind of feels sucky or whatever— but it’s like, ‘Wow! I did this!’” Julie Bruson explained.
The Brunsons’ goal is to keep the garden program growing, reaching more schools and communities and spreading those seeds of hope.