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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Diggin in, digging out: Deborah Grenehalghe turned her hands toward soil to find peace

When domestic violence brought chaos into her life, Deborah Grenehalghe turned her hands toward soil for moments of peace.

She wants to offer a way for other battered women to get quiet times to reflect while tending to growing plants. In 2016, she created Spokane Women’s Farms, helping domestic violence victims set up urban garden spaces.

Through the confidential program, women can grow produce in their own yards, in a community garden, or on land as shared space owned by a volunteer. Using donations, the nonprofit supplies the garden tools, seeds, plants and other growing materials.

“In the garden, you do become in the moment with just you, the plants, soil and nature,” said Grenehalghe, 50. Time seems to slow, and someone might turn to see a bee or hummingbird touch a flower.

“All of a sudden you’re like, ah this is beautiful,” she said. “It gives you a chance to get a breather mentally from whatever stress you’re dealing with and to be able to think and reflect. That’s important.”

Grenehalghe volunteers as the nonprofit’s coordinator in spare time around her job. Aside from some work with women at the YWCA shelter to grow indoor herbs in the winter, the program is mostly seasonal, March to September.

The nonprofit has helped at least 12 to 14 women establish garden plots or grow produce. It has about 15 volunteers who are women. Many of the volunteers have cultivated gardens for years.

Grenehalghe said background checks are done, and she works directly with individuals or makes sure there is a good match between a volunteer and participant. The nonprofit also asks police to check a garden space for risks such as tall bushes where someone might hide.

Glenna Poblete, a Spokane resident, turned to Spokane Women’s Farms when she was going through a divorce. She said it helped her recover from mental, emotional and verbal abuse.

“Gardening was something I knew I could do, but I just didn’t know how,” said Poblete, 59, now on the nonprofit’s board. “I didn’t have a garden. I just needed to get involved so I could get my mind involved and keep going forward. It got me out of the house.”

Grenehalghe offered farming tips so Poblete could turn part of her yard into a fenced garden. The work had the dual benefit of taking over a space where homeless people previously had left trash, bicycles and their belongings, Poblete said.

The nonprofit provided her with blueberry trees and other plants, and now Poblete grows carrots, chives, bell peppers, radishes and other vegetables.

“It was a breakthrough for me,” she said. “I was outside more, and I feel good about myself. It made me feel in control and at peace that I was doing something good – watering and planting and watching something grow.

“It cleaned up that area. I have a bench out there now and I sit there. When you sit in your garden, you don’t see all that ugliness.”

Grenehalghe said she’s been in three abusive relationships. During bad times, she’d often turn to tending plants and realized how much that helped her calm down.

She grew up on a farm in the Tri-Cities. By age 21 and with a baby, she had moved to Elk.

“He supposedly had a job, so I quit my job and came up here with our baby, and there was no job,” she said. “So I was away from my family, away from my income and all alone. We were starving. He was always gone playing with his friends, so I went to DSHS saying ‘I need help.’ ”

The agency gave her a week’s worth of food stamps and pointed to her work experience, she said.

“I went back home and I was completely devastated, but then I started looking at the fact I have soil, so I just went back to my roots. I started working the soil and I started growing our food.”

Later, she escaped from domestic violence in that relationship and took her young daughter to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Spokane, without access to soil.

“I was just a frantic mess,” she said. “I was always looking over my shoulder terrified he was going to kill me. I was always scurrying with my daughter from public place to public place.”

During a second relationship, Grenehalghe knew she needed to do gardening again when they moved to another rental with soil nearby.

“I knew I needed that soil just to calm myself down, so immediately, while my girls are playing in the yard, I start working the soil. There’s no scurrying around. There’s no looking over my shoulder. I’m able to move forward and offer them some stability as well as grow some food.”

Over the years she has noticed that when feeling stressed, she’d gravitate outdoors.

“I’ll go have a timeout in the garden and then I’ll feel better. I’ll have a nice fresh perspective to whatever stress I’m dealing with. I just wanted to provide that opportunity for other women who might be in a one-bedroom apartment like we were.”

When experiencing domestic violence, it’s hard to be able to slow down and reflect, she added. “You’re so worried about whether or not you’re going to die. To think of the future is very abstract.”

Some women hear about the program at the YWCA, or individually by finding the nonprofit’s website. It serves any woman in the Spokane area dealing with domestic violence. Participants aren’t required to have moved away from those situations, Grenhalghe added.

“Probably the biggest thing for ladies to know is we’re available if they just need a garden space,” she said.

“We don’t judge. We provide resources if you ask. We just provide space for reflection, with no pressure. The biggest problem we have is women think in order to participate, they have to move out of a domestic violence situation. They don’t. It’s difficult sometimes to make that move.”

Spokane has a large number of domestic violence incidents, and likely only about 20 percent get reported, said Sgt. Jordan Ferguson of the Spokane Police Department. He works in the major crimes and domestic violence unit.

Also a board member for the nonprofit, Ferguson said he quickly backed the Spokane Women’s Farms concept when he heard Grenhalghe present the idea.

“From the beginning, the way she described it, this sounded like a great plan,” Ferguson said. “We can look at it two ways.

“Sometimes you’re getting routine back in your life when it’s been taken away from you. And there’s great research about how doing things physically with your hands helps the brain create new pathways. It helps create new habits.”

Another way to look at time in a garden – or around nature – is how it offers a respite, he said.

“There are several researchers who talk about the benefits of a walk in the woods,” he explained. “With a garden, I’d think being around plants would have some of these same effects. This is an innovative program. Anything that will help bring peace to a survivor is beneficial.”

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