The Henderson Settlement campus is nearly empty this summer.
But tucked away in one of five greenhouses is Casey Smith with a water hose. She’s nurturing the vegetables and greens she planned and planted before everyone realized the pandemic is going to stay awhile.
“God gives me the ability to do it,” she says. “I think that’s where my knowledge comes from because I can’t explain it.”
For the last four years, Casey has served as a part-time employee, part-time volunteer at Henderson Settlement, a 95-year-old Methodist mountain mission located 30 minutes away from the nearest grocery store. Casey raises money for her own salary support.
Normally, Henderson Settlement would be teeming with church volunteers from all over the country, serving this corner of Appalachia by repairing houses, reading to kids, organizing the thrift store, and working in the greenhouses.
Since March, Casey and the remaining staff members (most have been laid off) have been more or less on their own, as team after team heeded the threat of coronavirus by canceling their trips to Frakes, Kentucky.
Casey also lost many of her greenhouse customers, including churches from the Midwest and Southeast that couldn’t come to drop off donations, and therefore didn’t pick up their produce or flower orders.
“I don’t have any place to go,” Casey says, explaining why she just kept on working. Miraculously, the greenhouses have had a great year despite the curve balls thrown by COVID-19.
Casey, who was born Loleta Kay LeBay 62 years ago, is a native of Bowling Green, Ohio. She worked in a variety of jobs before serving for a decade as a church administrative assistant (for the West Ohio Conference’s Maumee Watershed District).
In 2016, Casey says her life “blew up.” She escaped an abusive relationship and went to the place where she wanted to spend the rest of her life after 14 years of mission trips: Henderson Settlement.
“It felt like home the first time I ever came here,” she says.
She works in Henderson Settlement’s office, but her volunteer hours are spent in the greenhouses, which have totaled 60 hours a week lately.
Most days, it’s just her and the cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mustard greens, onions, peppers, snap peas, strawberries, and multiple varieties of leaf lettuce and tomatoes.
The vegetables have not gone to waste. When the church market disappeared, a connection and need emerged through Norwood United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 90 minutes away. Through a grant provided by the Holston Foundation, many of the vegetables were purchased to feed hungry families through a school program hosted by Norwood church.
Several churches and individuals from Holston Conference and Kentucky Conference also stepped up to buy vegetables and fill in the financial gap. Casey’s produce is also purchased to feed students and faculty at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in nearby Pineville, Kentucky.
So far, about 600 pounds of produce have gone out the greenhouse doors this summer.
Casey said she’s had “no formal education in anything,” but her green thumb may have come from growing up on a farm. She also credits her county extension agents and Grow Appalachia of Berea College for their help in making it all happen.
“I like to make things grow, and it seems to make everybody else happy, too.”
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