Lawrentians assist with COTS urban farm project

Molly-Judith Wilson

Appleton non-profit Community Outreach Temp-orary Services recently purchased the bankrupt Riverview Country Club with the intention of transforming the property into an urban farm called Riverview Gardens.

Three Lawrentians are currently involved with the project as well. Current SLUG house head and junior Hava Blair interns at COTS, while Oren Jakobson ‘11 and Cindy Sahotsky ‘84 are both employed at COTS in different capacities.

COTS, an organization committed to ending homelessness in the Fox River Valley, raised a reported $1.7 million from private individuals and combined this with another $1 million loan in order to buy the property.

Located on the south side of the Fox River in the heart of downtown, the Riverview Country Club property includes around 73 acres of woodlands in addition to a clubhouse.

The management of the property will take place through ServiceWorks, a program that began at COTS a few years ago, which focuses on small teams of people working together. This is the type of atmosphere that Riverview Gardens hopes to foster.

Blair, the current head of SLUG house, explained that the first of the three main goals of COTS is to help the homeless by providing job training. COTS has aligned itself with the Fox Valley Continuum of Care, a program designed to get the homeless in the Fox Valley back on their feet, and other nonprofit organizations in order to solve the growing homeless problem in Appleton.

According to the Appleton LIFE Study, a survey taken in Appleton every five years, homelessness has risen 48 percent since 2006, and the leading cause of homelessness is unemployment.

A project like the Riverview Farm would supply the homeless with transferable skills — skills that, as Blair explains, “you can take and use at different job sites, such as responsibility, accountability, productivity and the chance to interact with different types of people.” These skills would be honed through activities such as the clearing of trails, grounds maintenance and constructing and gardening in hoop-houses, such as the one SLUG constructed at Lawrence.

As COTS employee Jakobson noted, The second goal of the Riverview Gardens Project is to “change community perceptions about homelessness.” This will happen “by having community member volunteers working side-by-side with the homeless.”

Jakobson continued, “These are people that are really no different than the rest of our community, who’ve just had a series of ill-advised choices and/or negative experiences. The [homeless] people we’ve worked with had educations and professional backgrounds as varied as imaginable. Many of these people have specific skills, but through decisions and circumstances, they have become in need.”

The final primary goal of Riverview Gardens is for the project to be financially sustainable, and even to, unlike many nonprofits, generate an income of its own. This income would then be reinvested in other local nonprofits because, as Jakobson stressed, “our goal isn’t to compete, but to minimize direct local competition with local businesses.”

The Riverview urban farm is set up to be a CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture project. Community members will be able to help support Riverview through funds or volunteer work and will thus be making an investment in the farm. Within the next four or five years, Riverview Gardens hopes to install forty passive greenhouses, large gardens that will grow diversified fruits and vegetables, and also to allow for fishing in the lake.

The goal, according to Jakobson, is to create a large-scale agriculture program, yet to maintain a noncompetitive tone with local farms. “We don’t want to replace local producers,” he emphasized, “but rather replace [nonlocal] food coming in from Florida, South America and California.”

There are many ways in which Lawrence students can get involved with this project, and, as both Blair and Jakobson stress, they are encouraged to do so.

Internships in social work, parks and recreation, gardens and composting, volunteer and community service and ServiceWorks are all available to those with an interest. There are also multiple collaborative research opportunities open, such as wildlife research, research on urban sustainable agriculture, community development and certain projects eligible for a senior experience in such departments as biology and anthropology. And, being a nonprofit, volunteers are always welcomed.

Blair noted, “This project is new and exciting and moving very quickly, so there are a lot of opportunities for students to come in and really get involved.”

For more information on how to get involved, students may contact Riverview Gardens at riverviewgardens@appletoncots.org.

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