Prepare to be hugged. Maybe your hands (right or left, it makes no difference) will be shook. Perhaps someone will express the desire that you'll come work there sometime soon. But the hugs? They're a gimme. And they're more than hugs, really, they're full-on embraces, both literally and figuratively.
When the weather's nice and the doors are flung open, this is what you can expect when you cross the threshold of Project Grow, an arts and farming community in Northeast Portland's Eliot neighborhood.
Project Grow sprang from the imagination of visual and experiential artist Natasha Wheat, who had been hired as an art instructor by the Port City Development Center, a sheltered workshop which has been providing employment and alternatives to employment opportunities to developmentally impaired adults since the late-1970s.
Having noticed that some of the adults in her care were not always thriving in the employment training programs, Wheat sought to create an alternative program and, envisioning a functional, chemical-free, micro-Community-Supported Agricultural (CSA) farm on portions of Port City's unused land, pitched Project Grow to Port City in January of 2009.
Port City gave her their blessing and, perhaps even more importantly, their financial support, and after nine months of gestation, they launched the farm, as well as Major Panda, an adjacent fiber-arts studio.
Since then, about 30 adults have migrated to Project Grow, where they plant, nurture and harvest local crops, paint, draw and weave. Emese Ilyes, Project Grow's de-facto coordinator (they gently reject formal titles at Project Grow, since the staff of six shares the duties in all responsibilities), says the adults in her care, whom she refers to as clients, have thrived not only emotionally, but financially as well. Ilyes also notes:
The system has coined the term clients as a way to empower those who are supported but I'm actually uncomfortable with it because it simply hasn't been upheld. Individuals who are called clients are often treated as 'patients' [instead] in the system. I prefer artists and farmers, but I don't think it it is perfect yet. They are my friends.
What was a 3-member CSA in 2009 has grown to a 5-member CSA in 2010. And with the support of Port City and through an abundance of trades, barters and donations (which range from soil, shoots and a greenhouse to chickens, ducks, goats and a diverse range of looms), Project Grow is harvesting enough crops to not only meet their CSA requirements, but to sell goods to other parties, including, most recently, the kitchen staff of The Farm Cafe in Southeast Portland.
Ilyes points out that her clients are now earning a "fair wage" for their harvests (minimum wage is rarer than one might suspect in sheltered workshops). When they're not farming, Project Grow's clients are either painting or looming; the wool shorn from the farm's three goats, collectively and democratically named by the clients as Abby, Jeff and Buckaroo.
Their work is then shown and sold either online or in galleries and shops throughout the city, earning the artists generous commissions.
Yet, Project Grow might be making its mark in a more intangible way.
"Project Grow is a grand experiment in how people relate to one another," Ilyes says. "We understand the desire to train people to be in and of the world, while sheltering them from it at the same time." She elaborates:
I understand how the old perception that people must be trained and sheltered was formed, especially after the closure of such large institutions as Fairview. But, I am intensely uncomfortable with the fact that so much of the support continues to be segregated under the misconception that it is 'protective sheltering'.
But by opening their doors, Project Grow wishes to unshelter their population in order to allow their neighbors to mingle and learn from them just as they learn from their neighbors.
"There's been some community confusion about [Project Grow] when they walk by," Ilyes says, but once their neighbors walk in and engage in what's happening, they respond positively. "It's exciting and thrilling to see a culture [the personality of the neighborhood and the culture of care in place currently for adults with intellectual disabilities] change in such a positive direction."
Among the many ways Project Grow has made community inroads by hosting neighborhood association and community meetings, giving tours and hosting monthly lectures and workshops put on by local artists or by Project Grow's very own in-house artists.
There's also a plan in the works to paint a neighborhood mural, which will be collaboratively dreamt up and executed by local artists, Project Grow's artists and the Eliot neighbors, which, Ilyes says, will instill another sense of pride in the neighborhood, further helping Eliot's identity to "float to the top."
Ilyes says though that by simply opening their doors to the community and inviting them in, members of the community not only get to know Project Grow, they get to know one another, too.
"We have had the privilege of hosting neighborhood meetings for the neighborhood association and for proposed city repair projects," says Ilyes.
Through these meetings and through everyday conversations, Project Grow has learned of their neighbors’ concerns, which she lists as traffic, littering and crime. "We are working with [them] to be part of that solution by helping craft a clear identity through creative landscaping and public art."
And others are taking note. Ilyes says countless organizations across the U.S. are soliciting from them plans and advice.
But Project Grow is, after all, she says, still "an experiment."
"We haven't settled down to give somebody a recipe yet, but we plan to give someone sometime soon a very easy-to-replicate model."
After all, she's not even sure how Project Grow will change, expand or look like in the not-too distant future. Building and augmenting the plan is the fun part. Sustaining it requires a different style of creativity, especially as financial uncertainty looms above the entire country. And, as everyone know, when times are tough, governmental rain always rains first on the arts and social services.
"We're certain this experiment is worth it,” Ilyes says, “so we're seeking out creative partnerships with other businesses and individuals to sell our dreams to people, so that they'll connect with it."
Project Grow is located at 2156 North Williams. They are "open" each weekday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., but if you walk by, the chances are in your favor that you'll find someone there to answer your questions, give you a harvesting tour, sell you some eggs, introduce you to their three ducks (Me, Ashley-Annie and Country Music), say "Hello," or to simply give you a hug, even on holidays. You can call them at 503.236.9515, extension 105, or visit them online at www.growinginalldirections.org. There you can browse their virtual gallery, listen to previous streaming lectures (some of which include live musical performances), or, if you're in the mood, you scan their "wish list" and donate.
The Gallery at Port City
2156 N Williams Ave.
Portland OR 97227