Khmer youth work together to complete various tasks around the Friendship Garden. Photo by Ronnie Estoque.

For nearly two decades, Khmer elders at High Point in West Seattle tended to a plot of land as a Market Garden through the P-Patch Program. Crops raised from the land were donated to food banks, and were also purchased by neighbors looking to consume locally sourced produce. Now, the space is called the Khmer Friendship Garden.

“Last year, we were starting to hear talks of some elders wanting to retire because they’re getting older,” said Stephanie Ung, Co-Executive Director of the Khmer Community of Seattle King County (KCSKC). “In March of 2022 was the first time that we brought a cohort of Khmer youth to the garden every other Saturday, and the elders were there to kind of give direction and tell the youth basically what to do in the garden.”

Last September, the Khmer Community of Seattle King County (KCSKC) was awarded $119,185 to work on its Khmer Garden to Plate Extension project by the  Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ (DON) Food Equity Fund.

Members of Khmer Community of Seattle King County watch as an elder re-arranges a wooden plank for their fertilizer storage area. Photo by Ronnie Estoque.

Benedictor Asare, a 10th grader at Chief Sealth International High School, discovered an opportunity to become involved at the Khmer Friendship Garden through their school newspaper bulletin and completed the summer program.

“I got to learn about how to tend the garden, the earth and how to grow plants and specific tricks, and just overall being connected to the earth,” Asare said. “The people here are very nice. I think they’re very welcoming, very considerate. They really care about you and your opinions and thoughts and they just want to get to know you as a person.”

Ung has been in her leadership position at KCSKC since September of 2021, and was initially a volunteer at the organization. Several challenges have affected KCSKC, including being not allowed to install drip irrigation for the crops, which means that they have to be watered with hoses. KCSKC is also paying for their own Honey Bucket restroom on the property, and hopes that signage can be placed outside of the space in Khmer.

“There’s not a lot of seating and physical structures in the garden for it to become more of like, hosting a community space,” Ung said.  “The elders [Khmer] have been there for a long time.”

According to Ung, inviting youth to integrate into the Khmer Friendship Garden has been essential in activating it as an intergenerational space.

“In our community, the most common way that elders and youth who are not family interact are at the temple, which is very much an elder dominated space. In the garden, it’s kind of like neutral ground,” Ung said.

Crops blooming at the Friendship Garden. Photo by Ronnie Estoque

Lisaya Touch is a Khmer youth, and was drawn to the program because she wanted to develop gardening skills to help her own mom in their garden. One of the first things she learned how to do was pull weeds, and she quickly began to help her mom complete that task at home.

“I would say it really helped my mindset become more positive, just being outside, like nature and the weather,” Touch said regarding her summer experience in the Khmer Friendship Garden . “The elders are really friendly and I just treated them like how I would treat my parents and it was a very warm, full environment with them.”

Last year, KCSKC recorded a storytelling series where pairs of youth asked elders questions through the assistance of an interpreter over the span of five weeks.

“We [KCSKC] see a lot of understanding going both ways between generations, where elders are more expressive of how happy they are to see youth,” Ung said “There’s a lot of gratitude exchanged nonverbally but you know, elders will bring food to the garden to feed the youth when they know they’ll be there.”

Ung acknowledged that Khmer culture and history is not mainstream, and that youth often struggle with identifying a sense of belonging. To support youth, Ung incorporates mindfulness practices such as intentional breathing, greeting the land prior to gardening, and sharing a meal with the youth on Saturday Garden days. A big focus is strengthening the youths’ connection to nature, and building friendships and relationships with one another and the land.

“When we were watering or planting seeds, we’re like, sending good energy to the seed, you know, for it to grow well,” Ung said. “When we’re harvesting, we’re being mindful and you know, expressing gratitude.

KCSKC hopes to get into a stronger  rhythm of planting, harvesting, and seeding. Their programming was delayed due to the weather being too cold for elders to be outside. They are also hoping the Khmer Friendship Garden can be a community hub space, as their organization does not have a community center space for programming.

“The hope is that we can return to a market garden function…my hope is that the youth will learn entrepreneurship skills and learn what it takes to grow this garden in order to sell, like how many plants in a particular way for the purpose of harvesting all summer,” Ung said.

Ming Oun is one of the elders of the Khmer Friendship Garden. According to Ung, Oun is grateful and excited to see youth in the garden and loves when the garden is blooming and is clean. 

“I just want to come back because I just really enjoy being here, and meeting like the new faces that we have and it’s really exciting to see new people come and join us and garden,” Touch added. 

This story was produced in partnership with our media sponsor Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement of partners who believe every community can be a healthy, thriving community.

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