Congolese immigrant honored for his work in public gardens and teaching folks to grow healthy food

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Matthieu Kambumba shows off some of the bounty from the Wood Community Garden in the Centennial neighborhood. The 56 plots give people a chance to grow their own food. Matthieu Kambumba is a long way from his homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but he is growing deep roots in the Gresham community.

He recently won the Parks Champion Award from The Portland Parks Foundation for his work in community gardens and is working to make a success of the new Wood Community Garden, a 30,000-square-foot site with 56 garden plots next to Powell Butte Elementary School. The gardeners are reaping their first harvest this year.

"I have an eager desire to serve the community," Kambumba said.

Kambumba, 42, is a perfect illustration of immigrants and low-income people flourishing with a small amount of help, noted Christine Hadekel, education and outreach manager for the Oregon Food Bank.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MATTIEU KAMBUMBA - Many of the gardeners at Wood Community Garden are low-income immigrants. Kambumba is "an example where, with a tiny bit of support, people can thrive and become leaders. With a small stipend, and a little bit of training, he has grown by leaps and bounds."

Kambumba came to the community garden through the Oregon Food Bank's Seed to Supper Program. He took a Seed to Supper class for budding gardeners at a food bank he sometimes used to supplement his family's food budget. The OFB gave him seeds and starts for eggplant, tomatoes, kale and other vegetables, and he began growing food at his East Multnomah County home.

Kambumba applied and was selected by the OFB to become a Seed to Super ambassador in a leadership program that has the ambassadors providing gardening education and support for immigrant communities in their own languages. He received training and a $1,500 stipend for the year.

Portland Parks & Recreation was already developing the Wood Community Garden, and ambassador Kambumba got connected with the city and garden and began spreading the word among immigrant and low-income families and taught classes at the garden and libraries.

"He's extremely humble, hard-working and entrepreneurial," Hadekel said. "He has tons of ideas and he's ambitious."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Immigrant gardeners at Wood Community Garden grow familiar food like these squash but also difficult-to-get foods from their homelands. The Parks Champion Award recognizes folks "for their outstanding efforts to support vital, inclusive parks across the city." The award comes with a $1,500 grant to an organization of the honoree's choice. Kambumba designated the money for the Wood garden.

Kambumba's nomination letter said "he provides leadership and education for Wood community gardeners and has secured grant funding to provide needed resources for all gardeners such as seeds, plants, organic fertilizer and compost. His work to connect and share resources across the nine cultural groups represented in the garden fosters an inclusive community where all are welcome."

The Wood gardeners rent their plots from the city, with scholarships bringing the price down to about $28 per year. Between his home garden and his public plot, Kambumba's farming yields a lot of vegetables, and he plans to donate the excess produce to a food bank.

Gardening for food was not new to Kambumba, who grew vegetables in his native DRC before immigrating to the U.S. nine years ago.

Kambumba, a married father of two young boys, immigrated from Kinshasa, the capital and largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 12 million residents. Kambumba speaks four languages — English, French and the African languages Lingala and Ciluba.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Matthieu Kambumba works on his own plot in the Wood Community Garden.He "won" a green card under the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which allows him to live and work in the U.S.

"I wanted to explore the world. I wanted to learn about the U.S.," he said of his motivation to come to America.

Since emigrating, he's earned a bachelor's degree in management from Portland's Multnomah University. He's had several jobs and now works nights in the hospitality industry while his wife works days as a nurse.

He often brings his two sons to the garden and they toddle around as he works his plot, maintains the grounds and helps other gardeners.

"They like to water," he said, chuckling.

The garden, at 3615 S.E. 174th Ave., benefits low-income people by improving their nutrition at minimal cost, Kambumba said. Working in their garden plots also is a way for people who often can't afford a gym to get some exercise.

"Eating healthy is a remedy for a lot of health issues," he said, displaying his warm, ready smile.

The garden also helps make the mostly immigrant urban farmers more financially independent, he said.

"I am low-income and I cannot afford the high cost of organic vegetables in a store," he said, noting the garden saves him and others money.

He's also turned into an advocate for many folks using the garden. He points to an older woman, also from the Congo, who is harvesting in her garden plot.

"This lady cannot speak English at my level," he says, so he helps her and others out when they hit a snag in navigating life in their adopted home.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The garden, first planted in the spring, is yielding its first crops this fall. The immigrants who grow vegetables at Wood Community Garden come from all over the world. There are gardeners from different counties in Africa, Latin America and Asia and some from Russia and Ukraine.

A walk through the garden reveals a bounty of eggplants, beans, squash, tomatoes, kale and other familiar vegetables. But there is also ngai ngai, a medicinal plant from the Congo, and bilolo, a leafy vegetable, also from the DRC. Other immigrants grow vegetables and herbs they're used to from their former homelands.

Kambumba's volunteering doesn't stop at the garden's edge. He also volunteered 449 hours at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center near Beaverton in the sterile processing department, readying equipment for medical procedures and surgery.

He's also very involved in Gresham's International Bethel City Church, working in the music program and on worship services.

Despite his wide interests and involvements, Hadekel said Kambumba's soft-spoken, easygoing nature might lead people to underestimate him.

Don't, she said.

"He's a quiet leader, but persevering."

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