Farmhand Handyman

Volunteer and grant writer brings many skills to East Kensington’s Emerald Street Urban Farm

Bryan Thompsonowak says volunteering at the Emerald Street Urban Farm has made him more invested in the neighborhood. | Photos by Jared Gruenwald

When Bryan Thompsonowak, 37, was young, his father, a bricklayer and “all-around handyman-type of a guy,” taught him to not be afraid of trying new things. He applied that lesson when he tackled the construction of a three-bin compost system and a rainwater catchment system at Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington.

The farm's managers Nic and Elisa Esposito needed to expand their volunteer base because they were expecting their first child. That's when Thompsonowak stepped up, volunteering on Mondays from May to October.

“It’s nice to have a project close to home, and it’s not just the work; it’s the people that you’re there volunteering with,” says Thompsonowak, whose last name is a result of combining his and his wife Sharon Nowak’s last name.

Founded in 2009 by Elisa Esposito and the former farm director of Marathon Farms, Patrick Dunn, ESUF reclaimed and transformed five vacant lots in East Kensington. The farm, which sits a few doors down from his home, offers produce through a weekly donation-based farmstand and several pick-your-own community garden plots. The core group of about a dozen volunteers also runs an outreach and education program.

The East Kensington Neighbors Association has worked closely with ESUF and various other organizations, such as the Kensington Community Food Co-Op and Hackett Elementary School, to improve the East Kensington neighborhood. President Clare Dych helps lead the various sectors of EKNA in addressing the concerns and actions of the community by hosting monthly meetings to discuss zoning and planning within the neighborhood, and by promoting the Clean Up and Green Space Committees that work to protect and maintain the local parks.

This past spring, the farm received a $1,000 grant from the association to support the farm and their youth programming. “ESUF has given so much to the East Kensington neighborhood, all on a shoestring budget, and we felt it was time to give back,” Dych says in an email.

Thompsonowak also wrote an application on behalf of ESUF for a grant provided by the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust given to nonprofits that further the field of ornamental horticulture through education and research. Esposito was blown away: “This went beyond the commitment of coming out every Monday. If we get the grant, it will be a huge game-changer for us.”

This winter, Thompsonowak, who’s also a graduate student of the Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture, will continue the program through the University of Delaware with hopes of advancing his career within public gardens. But he won’t be too far from the farm.

“Volunteering at the farm has made me more invested in the neighborhood,” Thompsonowak says. “Being a part of something that is 100 percent good for the neighborhood is great.”