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It’s hard to imagine a better setting for a tea party on a summer evening than the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain. Its mountain vistas and vast landscape of carefully planted rows of crops lend themselves perfectly to a gathering featuring locally made bowls of endless tea and appetizing finger foods. 

Indeed the visual appeal of EmpTea Bowls, which returns for its seventh year at 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, is undeniable, but the work the fundraiser supports makes it significant to the community as a whole. 

Originally known as the Black Mountain Community Garden when it was founded by Dr. John Wilson in 1997, the operation expanded to its current space at 99 White Pine Drive in 2004. In 2011 it was named in honor of its founder.

Diana McCall began volunteering at the burgeoning garden in 2005. She began receiving a small stipend, secured by Wilson, the following year and in 2007 the town received a grant that allowed McCall to manage the garden as a paid employee for 1,000 hours each year. 

The 1.25-acre garden, which produces over 4,000 pounds of nutrient-rich vegetables and includes 90 members, has thrived under McCall. A big part of that success can be attributed to volunteers and its internship program. 

“Our first summer intern came aboard in 2007,” she said. “We had a lot of interest when we introduced the program. By summer of 2008 we were able to offer paid internships through a partnership with Warren Wilson College.”

The partnership with the Swannanoa college ended around 2012, according to McCall, but the garden had “come to rely on interns.” 

“We had really come to value the services that we were offering in the internship program,” she said. “I have a lot to offer in terms of education, management, gardening skills and people skills and one of our missions in the garden is education. So we started to look at ways we could continue the internship program while continuing to pay them.

“I think it’s really important to pay our interns, because the program requires a big commitment on their part,” she continued. 

McCall developed an annual fundraiser based off the Empty Bowls model, which has been widely used to raise money and awareness for hunger since the first was held in Michigan in the early 1990s. 

She launched EmpTea Bowls to support the internship program in 2012. Each year the fundraiser is organized by the current intern. 

“We’ve received a lot of community support with this event over the years, which is great because the internship program is such a crucial part of our program,” McCall said. “But it’s also an opportunity for each intern to pay it forward, with their hard work going to support future interns.”

This year Emily Wimberly is participating in the program and coordinating EmpTea Bowls. 

“We establish at least three goals with each intern,” McCall said. “We do evaluations throughout the internship and check in to see the progress they are making and also find out what I can do to help them reach those goals. Emily’s goals are centered around leadership and supervision.”

The program places interns like Wimberly in key roles, like coordinating the hundreds of volunteers who give their time supporting the efforts of the garden. 

Warren Wilson sophomore Gabrielle Peterson has been volunteering at the community garden for nearly two years. 

“I was interested in learning about gardening,” she said. “I really like being outside and working with the earth and plants.”

Her hands-on experience at the community garden has given her a unique insight into the crucial role it plays in the community. 

“This garden is an amazing asset,” she said. “Volunteering has given me a chance to see the whole cycle. I get to see everything when it goes into the ground, see it harvested and watch it go to people who need it through Bounty & Soul.”

In fact, the vast majority of produce grown in the garden is donated to the Black Mountain-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger by providing healthy food for the food insecure. 

“Before Bounty & Soul came along we did our own food distribution with cooking classes, but we were only able to do that once a month,” McCall said. “They do that several times a week, so having an organization with the purpose to do the other end of the work we’re doing creates this partnership that is really doing important work in the community.”

Bounty & Soul’s Produce to the People program currently distributes around 7,500 pounds of food to nearly 700 people each week in the Swannanoa Valley. As the need for healthy food grows, another partnership is helping the community garden serve them. 

“We wouldn’t be growing as much as we do right now without Banner Greenhouses,” McCall said of the family-owned grower out of Nebo. “They make a huge difference in the quality of what we’re producing. They’re not just donating to our garden either, they’re donating to other members of the Gardens That Give WNC network.”

Banner Greenhouses, which like Bounty & Soul and the community garden is part of the network, provides more than 200 flats annually to Gardens That Give WNC.

“All of our partnerships are so important,” McCall said. “There are a lot of organizations working together to fill these important needs in the community.”

Not only does EmpTea Bowls support the garden’s mission, it’s a celebration of its many community collaborations. 

Admission is free, but bowls made by local potter Martha Nelson and others will be available for $20. Those bowls will be filled with endless tea brewed by Spiral Roots Sanctuary. 

“Emily and I have been harvesting herbs from the garden,” McCall said. “We’ve got things like nettles, rose petals, mint, holy basil and other herbs, which we’ve harvested and dried over the past three to four months.”

The event will also include food offerings from Foothills Meats and Four Sisters Bakery, as well as live entertainment. 

“Some of our gardeners will be there to offer tours of the garden,” McCall said. “People can learn more about the garden and all of the ways it serves the community.”

For more information on the EmpTea Bowls fundraiser for the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden contact Diana McCall at diana.mccall@townofblackmountain.org or visit promotiononline.co/empteabowls/. 

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