The Hillview Greenhouse Life Center: Produce with a Purpose

Mission: To utilize the Hillview Greenhouse as an urban community farm, devoted to making the most of the talents and abilities of elders and other volunteers in supporting the sustainable production of organic produce for local sale and distribution to the La Crosse community.

By Cole Nelson, La Crosse Public Library Archives Intern
Photos provided by La Crosse Magazine. Published by Mueller Media, Inc., La Crosse, WI. Bruce Defries, Photographer

 

 Hillview Greenhouse Life Center cofounders Julie (executive director) and Tom Klemond (president) shown with Tom’s brother John (back) who volunteered daily.
Hillview Greenhouse Life Center cofounders Julie (executive director) and Tom Klemond (president) shown with Tom’s brother John (back) who volunteered daily.

In 2007 local physician Tom Klemond and his wife, Julie, friends of Joel and Jean Olsen, worked with the Olsons to transition the greenhouses into a nonprofit, socially minded community center utilizing volunteers. What emerged was the Hillview Greenhouse Life Center, a community effort that advocated the need for meaningful and collaborative employment as an alternative or supplement to more customary elder care options. The Hillview Greenhouse Life Center opened in 2008 to provide a space for disabled and elderly citizens to participate in productive and cooperative gardening work. It soon evolved into much more, becoming a noteworthy example of the many uses of urban agriculture in an active community.

Just as the Life Center was unifying a historic building with a new organization and mission, it also began building connections between generations. The body of volunteers quickly grew to include a wide variety of age and social groups, including many students and teachers from area schools, from middle schools to higher education institutions, who labored closely alongside senior participants. The Life Center collaborated with Couleecap to introduce teens to ecological work as part of its “Shades of Green” program. It was estimated that around 210 volunteers participated in the Life Center’s first year, and that up to a dozen senior citizens were active there each day. The Life Center worked with schools, businesses and community nonprofits such as Causeway. It partnered with all three local higher education institutions to provide space for horticulture classes, including Western Technical College’s horticulture class.

Cheri Schuyler, full-time volunteer and compost coordinator, is shown tending the compost piles on the Hillview greenhouse property. “The compost program at Hillview is a fond and messy memory. It was incredibly satisfying to remove one ton of food from the waste stream every week.”
Cheri Schuyler, full-time volunteer and compost coordinator, is shown tending the compost piles on the Hillview greenhouse property. “The compost program at Hillview is a fond and messy memory. It was incredibly satisfying to remove one ton of food from the waste stream every week.”

The produce generated by this project was sold to local businesses and restaurants for the purpose of maintaining self-sustainability. The Life Center was active year-round and also provided out-of-season produce, such as spinach and tomatoes, to the People’s Food Co-op. Looking to other urban agriculture organizations, such as Growing Power in Milwaukee, for guidance, the Life Center strived to become both self-sustaining and ecologically friendly. To do so, a vegetable-oil boiler, acquired through a grant, was used to both recycle and cut down on heating costs.

Though the Life Center was praised for the steps it took in promoting both ecological and social awareness, it faced a constant financial battle. Despite support from the city, local foundations, including the La Crosse Community Foundation, and many local businesses, the cost of upkeep prevented self-sustainability. In 2010 the Life Center determined that the donations and revenue accrued by the greenhouses were insufficient to cover the monthly cost of running a 100-year-old facility. Operations were suspended on July 23, 2010. Soon a group of volunteers would come together with a new vision for the historic Hillview Greenhouse while carrying on the Life Center’s commitment to serving the community through sustainable urban agriculture.

Karen Houlihan (in foreground) and Corky Grams were regular volunteers at the Life Center. Corky, aged 86 and a widow,  volunteered five days a week because it “gets me up in the morning and gives me a mission to complete, something to do.”
Karen Houlihan (in foreground) and Corky Grams were regular volunteers at the Life Center. Corky, aged 86 and a widow, volunteered five days a week because it “gets me up in the morning and gives me a mission to complete, something to do.”

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