Interview by: Becky Kalish
Sam Beetler, graduate of Lorain County Community College, is the lead gardener for The People’s Garden at Oberlin Community Services (OCS). Sam’s main work is running the garden but she is also involved in many of the other projects that OCS facilitates. Beetler's favorite outdoor spot in Oberlin is the arboretum.
Q: My first question is what got you interested in doing the work that you do, and what led you to work at the People’s Garden?
A: I grew up in a town called Deerfield, Ohio, about 2 hours east of here. Where I grew up, we had 4 acres of land so I felt like I was always outside, playing outside, playing in my tree house, helping my mom out in the garden... well, she kind of made us go out every Saturday morning! So yeah, growing up in an agricultural community and basically being pressured to always be outside got me into gardening, and that led me to pursue sustainable agriculture at Lorain County Community College. They started a sustainable agriculture program about two years ago and I was part of the first class to graduate as an entire class. There were around 12 of us in the program and it took a year to complete. My first semester at that program I had to do a service learning project. I ended up coming to Oberlin Community Services (OCS) and doing a tour. I was living here at the time so I thought this would be perfect, you know, it’s close by! So I started doing my service learning project and I really had a lot of fun with the people that work here at OCS as volunteers.
Q: So it seems like the people at OCS were very engaged in the work they do and that inspired you?
A: Yeah! Everyone here is just so friendly and it really helped me to feel like I was part of the community. We also all had such a good time working back in the pantry. I ended up staying and becoming a work study student through the community college. I stayed until the next spring and then they asked me to be our gardener because they knew about my background, knew I was about to graduate from the program, so I was like sure that’d be awesome!
Q: Very cool! What words or images would you use to describe this community? I know you talked about some of that already, but if there’s anything else you’d like to add?
A: Hmm yeah, I’m trying to think about how I would describe it. People are just so friendly. When I was moving out this way to start the sustainable agriculture program, I knew that I had one class out at the George Jones Farm, so I came out and visited the farm and it was just so pretty. People from this town were telling me "you’re gonna love it here, you can walk around, you can meet people." If you’re a social person and love to be involved with the outdoors this is the place to live.
Q: Have you found there to be a lot of interaction between the College and the town, or do you think there could be more of a connection?
A: Well, working at OCS I feel like I am kind of spoiled because that bridge between the college and community is already formed. There are so many college students that are coming from one semester to the next. That’s nice because when I go to an event on campus I kind of recognize some of the faces, and working here you always have the chance to stop and talk to people because as you’re working you’re always having conversations.
Q: Besides your involvement with the gardening at OCS, what other things does OCS do and what is your involvement in them?
A: Well today for example, we just had the Little Sprouts program. That’s linked to another program called Hard-Hatted Women, which is a program for single moms that need to do job training and get more skills to be more competitive in the job market. There are 14 women in the program, so today they went to the bridge to do stuff on the computer. While they’re doing that, me and other volunteers are taking care of their kids. That’s one program, and of course there’s the food pantry inside. That’s one of the biggest things at OCS. It just seems like the need for it is growing every year within my past two years being here. There’s also America Counts, the tutoring program that they run here. There was a big group that came in today to do training for that.
Q: I’ve heard so many of the great things you do in your work, but I was curious about what some of the biggest challenges have been in your time here?
A: Finding volunteers to help. Gardening is such a labor-intensive activity so it really just makes a big difference having people out here with me just to do stuff like keep up with weeding and watering, especially since we use the rain barrels. It takes a lot of time, but I’d rather use the barrels than get out the hose and be done in ten minutes. This past summer I was lucky, I had a bunch of high school students that were helping me. Oh, that’s another program is the Tanef students. We always have them during the summer, so local high school students can get employed through the Tanef program and make... I think it’s minimum wage, but it gives them an opportunity to get out into the community and help different organizations.
Q: In what ways do you feel that Oberlin has been “ahead of the curve” in terms of important issues of our time, relating to environmental, economic and social issues? Or if not what do you think could be done?
A: Honestly I’m really impressed. I feel like there’s a lot of communication between City Council and the residents that live here. I know that in the past I’ve attended some sessions where people from city council and leaders of the community would meet and be on a question board where you can ask them questions and they’ll answer you.
Q: Do you find that the city council is willing to listen to ideas or concerns you may bring up?
A: Yeah, I definitely think so. I also feel like the people who live in the Oberlin community kind of expect that... I also think the College has a large part to play in that too.
Q: Definitely, people are very opinionated here!
Q: How do you feel about the relationship between the college and the residents of Oberlin?
A: I actually have kind of mixed feelings about that. I mean, working at OCS it has been interesting hearing the students talk about how before they came to OCS, they were in this bubble, they didn’t really know the residents of the town, and didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to interact with them. I think the OCS experience changes the perspective of students who come and see the residents and some of the needs of the people in the community.
"I think the OCS experience changes the perspective of students who come and see the residents and some of the needs of the people in the community."
Q: What do you think the younger generations, maybe some of the kids you work with, could learn from the history of this community?
A: Well, just looking at the history of community gardening in Oberlin... there’s been a lot that has been done. I think that a lot of the gardens are struggling with the ability to sustain themselves and have the capacity for volunteers. The youth can learn that if you want to make something happen, you can do it. You have to work at it, tell your friends, let people know this is actually a cool thing to do.
Q: Outside of OCS, are there other groups in the community that you identify, connect, or spend your time with?
A: I still talk to students that were in the sustainable program, like Dennis out at George Jones. We’ve stayed really good friends. I feel like George Jones I’ve connected with, and also we went to a couple different gardens throughout the summer to help out. I’ve been down to the Legion Field Community Garden, which is right off of Professor St., the Service and Learning Project out at the Boys and Girls Club, so I feel like I know the students pretty well and the adults that are leading some of the different programs.
Q: My last question is what places or activities in Oberlin make you feel close to nature, and what in general is most special to you about Oberlin?
A: I would have to say of course the arb. It’s so pretty and right across the street from where I work [...] Sometimes it’s nice to take a walk there when you’re the only person. It’s a nice place to chill out. And then George Jones, I go swimming out there!