From the family farm to community advocacy

Growing up as the oldest of eight children on her family’s Seneca County farm, Yvonne Dubielak experienced firsthand the joys of gardening, even if it was often a tedious undertaking.
“We had a huge vegetable garden, which I sometimes hated as a kid, because we’d have to wake up and weed on Saturday mornings,” Dubielak relates. “My mom always canned and froze our vegetables. And I helped with that whole process.”

Dubielak became Executive Director of Toledo GROWs in 2017 after four years as Outreach and Education Director for Toledo Botanical Garden. Though her interest in horticulture is certainly homegrown, the professional pursuit of gardening was a shift after spending time as an educator, beginning her career as an elementary school teacher before, eventually, moving into an administrative role.

“I’m the oldest daughter in a big family, so it’s bred in me,” Dubielak says of her tendency to step into leadership positions. “As (a school) principal and in administrative roles, I felt like I could listen to people and rally people around.”

Getting involved with Toledo GROWs was a way for Dubielak to make use of those skills while making a difference in our community. She first became aware of Toledo GROWS when her daughter performed service hours there while in high school, and Dubielak soon found herself getting to know the staff and volunteers. She knew she wanted to be a part of it. “I want to serve the underserved,” she says. “I had the leadership skills and the familiarity with agriculture; it just all kind of came together.”

Planting seeds
The Toledo GROWs is an organization which facilitates the operation of 125 community gardens throughout the city. There is a huge educational component to what the nonprofit accomplishes under Dubielak’s watch, with the help of a supportive staff and a network of volunteers. She’s seen firsthand and heard accounts of participants, explaining how the organization has changed their lives. One diabetic woman who began a community garden with the help of Toledo GROWS shared with Dubielak that she’d lost 20 pounds and her insulin levels had stabilized, all since beginning her involvement with the group.

“I can really appreciate the fact that I am very healthy, and grew up eating healthy food prepared and grown at home,” she reflects. “You know, that’s different for so many people now. Helping people to get in touch with the source of their food is huge. If I can be part of that process— getting people connected to the land and knowing where their food comes from? The healthier they eat, the healthier they’ll be.”

Q&A:

Describe your typical work day: We have a little urban farm that’s home to our program, just north of downtown Toledo. I like to get here about a half hour before everybody else. On a typical day, I would probably have a meeting or go out and meet with a partner or a sponsor in the community. I oversee the farm and manage all the staff. I’m at work from 7:30am to 4:30pm, and then I like to go home and work out or have a nice long walk and a good dinner at home. Then I just relax in the evening. I try to leave work at work and take care of myself, too.

How does Toledo GROWS address food insecurity in our area? Basically, the community gardens are in neighborhoods — at churches, at community centers, at libraries, at schools, all different places. For garden leaders that really want to start a garden, we’ll help them with technical assistance, get them free seeds and seedlings in the spring, loan them tools, get some volunteers out there. We provide opportunities for them to network and learn from each other. We also do some advocacy— a lot of dealing with water access (for irrigation) from the city and those kinds of things.

How can our readers best support the Toledo GROWS mission? Seek out a community garden and get involved in it. They can help by working in one of those community gardens. Or they can contact us, and we can connect them with a garden nearby and with a leader for that garden.

We could also use help at Toledo GROWs (on Oneida St., near downtown), though we were limited last year due to COVID. I’m really hopeful that by late spring this year, we can have open volunteer times again. We invite volunteers to assist every Wednesday morning from 9am to noon. They can support us by donations or by purchasing produce here; we always have honey, eggs and produce that we sell. You can even sponsor a class to come for a field trip or help with funding for us to be able to provide seeds or seedlings to kids or to a senior center.

To get involved with Toledo GROWs as a volunteer, donate, or to purchase food items from them, call 419-720-8714 or visit toledogrows.org.

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