In 1998 two women were intrigued and inspired by the potential threat of the Y2K bug that threatened to take down civilization at the turn of the century. As they set about preparing for the End of the World, they realized that it was their longstanding passions and interests -- growing and preserving food, capturing and storing water, creating alternate forms of energy sources; and networking within the community to care for the vulnerable -- that would serve this new period well.
That’s when Karen Nelson and Gail O’Sullivan moved into 311 9th Ave SE Olympia, WA with the goal of demonstrating urban sustainability on a neighborhood scale. Once the world didn’t end, these concerns grew into the non-profit called Fertile Ground Community Center, founded in 2005.
Their historic home was ideally situated on the edge of downtown, making it a natural meeting point. Farms used the site for their Community Supported Agriculture deliveries. Children rode the bus there after school and waited for their moms to get off work. Community groups held fundraisers and artists painted the flowers. Neighbors living in surrounding apartments used the open space as their yard - bringing along children and pets.
In 2000, Karen and Gail opened Fertile Ground Guesthouse for travelers. Karen's quiet classic reserve expressed itself in her simple yet elegant interior design. Her ability to create a sense of beauty and flow stems from her interest in Feng Shui and her experiences as a homemaker and artist. Gail's outgoing warmth and friendliness made hospitality seem easy. They enjoyed hundreds of guests over 18 years. There was a great confluence between the guesthouse and the non-profit, and overnight guests were frequently invited by community members to stay at the B&B in order to sample the real Olympia during their short visit. The Evergreen State College was a constant source of interns, field trips and parental visitations.
By 2010 the Fertile Ground presence had expanded both east and west to encompass half the block. The Eco-house sat across the garden from the Guesthouse and primarily served as a meeting space and collaborative workspace. The organization changed its name to The Commons at Fertile Ground in 2010 to emphasize the open space being stewarded by the community.
For five consecutive summers, The Commons at Fertile Ground also hosted the smallest grocery store, The Food Nook, which sold only locally made food each weekday to the office workers and neighbors. It provided an opportunity to sit on the adjacent picnic tables and chat with a friend surrounded by a beautiful garden and the sounds of flowing water.
Between 2010 and 2020, Fertile Ground hosted the Village Building Convergence, partnered with the NorthWest EcoBuilding guild on remodeling projects, hosted hundreds of middle school students with a Green Building presentation and scavenger hunt, hosted Seed-to-Table day camp and Patterns in Nature Art Camps for kids.
The Evergreen State College supplied interns year after year. Here's a video made by some of the students that explains what and how they learned.
In 2018 the City of Olympia purchased the property that contained the garden and the Eco-House and they intend to build a Peace and Justice Park there.
The space once known as The Commons at Fertile Ground will always be beautiful, but now it's opening up to new expressions. Currently, the 1908 Craftsman-style house is rented by a group trying to buy it as a housing cooperative. As the City of Olympia moves forward on building a Peace and Justice Park that wraps around this property, the opportunity for connection and education will multiply and spread.
This non-profit organization is now ready to flourish like a root-bound plant newly transplanted into the earth. The new board of directors includes Marisha Auerbach and Susie Martens (as well as many others) who have helped to shape and support the organization since its beginning. The new board is part of a bio-regional network which enables them to offer a much wider range of educational opportunities, which will allow the roots to spread and bring more nourishment to the region. Handing the mantle over to their capable hands was the best use of the organization’s resources.