Sweat glistens on the forehead and arms of Charles Ekelozi, on a moment’s breather from his labors in the field of blueberries at his back, where the sweetness of summer is a-ripening.
Hard work? Absolutely.
Yet, you’ll find no trace of “I’ve had it” on Ekelozi’s 12-year-old face, just a smile.
Because the weeds and blackberry bushes only a week earlier so tall, profuse and overwhelming are giving way, and Ekelozi knows that the muscle he’s been adding to that of the others working there, hacking and
cutting and shoveling and raking with joy under the blazing July sun, has a lot to do with that.
Accomplishment like that, a guy can touch, hold in his hands.
“Knowing you’re doing something is a good experience. And at the end of it, you realize what you did, and you feel successful. And the berries taste good, too,” Ekelozi said.
From any of the more than 30 people who work alongside Ekelozi, most of them kids, and all of them volunteers from the Open Door Baptist Church in Kent, you’ll get some variant of that sentiment: each digs being part of the rebirth of the 4-acre Higher Taste U-Pick Blueberry Farm at 30431 38th Ave. S. in Auburn, after its owner could no longer dedicate the necessary time to it.
Funny thing, none of the kids are being paid directly for their labor; instead, their wages are going directly into a fund to cover the cost of their future mission trips overseas.
It was the teeming mind of a young Auburn woman, 20-year-old Esther Byram – “Estee” to just about everyone who knows her – that brought all the workers to this place just east of Lake Dolloff.
“I really wanted a place where the kids could work and be outside,” Estee explained. “And as you can see, they really love it. They love being able to see it and say, ‘I worked with my hands, and got this done.’ Most of the time when you work, you don’t get to see the result like you see it here. At the end of each day we go back into the rows that we cleared and we show them, ‘Look how much you got done, in the morning you couldn’t even see in this row, and now it’s cleared and you can walk down it,’ and we take before-and-after pictures,” Estee said.
And Estee, a teacher’s assistant at Highline College and a missionary with trips to Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti under the belt, gets to indulge her love for teaching.
“I like teaching them how to work with their hands, use tools, build things, how to use a rake or shovel, some of them we teach them to use a machete and show them how carefully they can use the tools,” Estee said. “At the end of the day, they’re tired, and they crash. It’s fun, but it’s also hard work. Our goal is to teach them character, diligence. Give ‘em life skills, so they come to the end of the summer having done something, accomplished something.”
Farm as a ministry
To tell the story, one has to go back seven years, to the first day the Byram family, mom and dad and their seven kids, came to Mary King’s farm just east of Lake Dolloff to buy berries.
As they were ending their first visit, Estee said to her mother, Jennifer, how much she wished she could run the farm as a ministry-community service. What’s more, she wished she could hire the young immigrants and refugees who arrived by bus every Sunday at the parking lot of the Fred Meyer in Kent – The Open Door Baptist Church meets there and Estee’s father, Joel Byram, is its pastor – to get them to work all summer, as she knew that otherwise, many would just be sitting in their apartments all summer with little to do.
And, Estee added, just how good it would be for those kids to be out in the sunshine instead, working hard, learning skills, hanging out with other kids who wanted to work, helping the community, beautifying the old farm, and munching on healthy blueberries while they worked.
Estee became a frequent visitor to the farm, where she formed a fast friendship with King, earning her trust.
One day, King offered her a job, carrying out tasks like weed eating, clearing bushes, picking berries, collecting money, being that person on hand for customers who didn’t want to pick their own berries. Saying Estee loved the work is an understatement. And over the three summers she worked there, she fell more and more in love with the farm.
Two weeks ago, however, Estee noticed that the farm looked abandoned. She called King, who explained that she had simply been overwhelmed with her new real estate job and couldn’t find the time to run the farm.
Estee, who had always dreamed of owning or operating the farm, presented a startling question to King: could she rent the farm? After initially turning down the offer, King said yes.
“The grass was probably 7-feet-high. I loved the farm, and it was really sad to see such a beautiful farm in that state,” Estee said. “What I told Mary was I know you’ve got this new job, and you don’t have a lot of time to do this, and it’s hard to get the workers in here, and it’s hard to pay out all that cash before the season even starts. I thought we could do it. We have really good workers, people who are diligent in going to work and excited about the idea,” Estee said.
So Estee and her six siblings, Josiah, Tiffany, Brooke, Timothy, Ronna and Becca, began to brainstorm, and when that was done, they presented their ideas to the church.
“In the first five days, 33 individuals volunteered their time to get the farm ready for the coming U-pick season, and they have made incredible progress,” said Jennifer Byram. “If people know about it and want to support the vision of these kids, they could come and pick the berries over the next couple of months. Maybe someone out there might even want to donate to make improvements to the farm that the kids can’t do themselves.”
All of Estee’s brothers and sisters are part of the crew at the farm.
Tiffany Byram, 22, and recently returned from a two-month-long missionary trip to Zambia, works on advertising and “getting everything online, arranging for signs to be printed and for signs to be remade, overseeing the kids making posters,” and will manage actually selling the blueberries.
Timothy Byram, 16, last year went on his own missionary trip to Zambia, but has lately had his hands full clearing blackberries and driving back the weeds. But he’s not complaining.
“Mostly I like just getting the chance to work, but I also like the blueberries,” Timothy said.
Daniel Wang, 16, an aspiring physician, enjoys the work as it affords him a break from his indoor studies.
“It’s fun to do some physical work,” he said.