ZEBULON — Months before President Barack Obama called on Americans to roll up their sleeves to help turn a foundering economy around, Kay Whatley and her family could see the impact of the financial crisis on their small suburban community.
Whatley's own software manual publication business had ground to a halt. Three people in her neighborhood posted "For Sale" signs after losing their jobs. A friend of Whatley's daughter suddenly qualified for free school lunches as the economy worsened.
It was then, in late 2008, that Whatley turned to her husband, Frank, with an idea: What if we asked people to mail us seeds that we could plant and then grow free vegetables?
"We thought, 'This can be our part,'" Kay Whatley said recently. "'This is how we roll up our sleeves. This is how we can effect change. We'll get some seeds, grow them, and give them away.'"
With that seemingly simple plan, the Whatleys began a small hunger relief operation that, in its second year, is expected to multiply fivefold.
The Whatleys, with Kay, 42, leading the way, plan to give away 10,000 plants with the stipulation that the fruit be donated to people in need.
Last month, the couple finished construction on a 1,200-square-foot hothouse in their wooded backyard. From there, they now grow edible plants ranging from arugula to zucchini.
Next month, those tiny seedlings will be given away to people willing to sign a pledge promising to grow the plants and share the harvest with "neighbors and strangers."
Whatley has already helped two elementary schools - one in Youngsville, one in Franklinton - find donated soil, timber and seeds to build gardens. She has also supplied seeds and plants to several community gardens committed to sharing a portion of their harvests with the poor.
Along the way Whatley found people willing to lend her a hand and ready to share or donate their soil, seeds, trays, tables and labels.
"People are so amazing," she said. "You give them an idea, and they find a way to help."
Having spent most of her professional life as a technical writer for computer software manuals, it was hardly a given that Kay Whatley would end up gardening.
Born in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., she grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. In her late teens, Whatley gave birth to a child. She supported herself through college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh by working as a secretary and attending classes on nights and weekends. A first marriage followed and two more children, Riley, now 13, and Nadia, 9.
Whatley and her first husband came to North Carolina in 1996 after she was hired to work in sales for a software company that published technical manuals. From there she went to work on her own, helping to train employees at different companies.
After her first marriage fell apart, Kay met Frank Whatley, a car salesman, online. They talked on the phone for months before they ever met in person. When they did, they hit it off and married in 2007.
In her blood
But if there was nothing in her own life to suggest gardening, there was plenty in her parents' and grandparents' lives.
Growing up, Whatley remembers the delicious meals her grandmother prepared with food from the family garden.
At a time when it wasn't popular, her mother's mother composted food scraps, canned and froze vegetables.
When her grandmother died, she left behind a diary that recorded the days by the various daily gardening chores she completed.
"Picked a bushel of beans," one day's entry read. "Planted blueberry bushes," read another.
Her father's parents were schoolteachers, but they lived on a farm and owned livestock.
Her own parents, who have since relocated to Morrisville, now garden and grow fruit trees.
Whatley is the first to admit she has a lot to learn when it comes to gardening, but she's content to learn alongside her fellow gardeners
"Everybody can do this," is her motto.
In their first season, the Whatleys were able to distribute 2,000 plants, mostly through a relationship the Whatleys established with Pilot Baptist Church in Zebulon, located at a busy crossroads on the western edge of Franklin County.
In the spring of last year, the church held a plant giveaway. In the summer, church members set up a tent on the grounds with a banner: "Free Vegetables for Those in Need."
Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, people came for cantaloupes, corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and watermelon.
"There were some concerns about people stopping by who weren't in need," said Jan Alford, a church deacon who helped with the venture. "But I was there every Saturday, and I never felt a single person stopped by who wasn't in need."
Continuing the mission
Alford was so won over by the project that even though the Whatleys did not join his church, he agreed to serve on the board of Whatley's newly created nonprofit organization, Grow and Share.
"I was pretty astonished," said Alford. "There are a lot of good people in the community. But you just don't see that many people willing to dedicate thousands of hours to helping others."
This year, in addition to Pilot Baptist, the Whatleys will give away plants and vegetables at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Garner and at some private homes as well.
"It's a ministry for her," said Lori Schweickert who helps till a community garden in Carrboro. Schweickert received plants and seeds from Whatley for the community garden, which shares one-third of its harvest with a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
Whatley isn't sure about the religious language. The Whatleys are not regular churchgoers, but they have faith.
Increasingly, Kay Whatley said she believes gardening is what she was meant to do in life.
"We can see the faces of the people coming for the food and the faces of the gardeners and volunteers, and we feel very thankful," she said.
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