Foster the People lends a hand to center for disabled adults

July 10, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Volunteer Danielle Kuchler paints a bench’s decorations June 26 at the Tavon Center as part of The Pomegranate Center and Foster the Future’s project. By Lillian Tucker

The sawdust was flying June 26 when the local nonprofit Tavon Center received a helping hand from a rock band, an experimental artist and a whole lot of wet volunteers.

The unlikely group came together on a soggy northwest Tuesday to carve, paint, build and install six benches around the 5 acres at the center, which serves local adults with disabilities.

With not enough room in the workshop for the nearly 50 people that showed up ready to help, volunteers spread out across the property to weed the garden and clear trails.

“This property is so beautiful and big, we just wanted to create more places for them to sit, relax and be social,” Megan Wegner, program director, said of the center’s clients.

A large part of what Tavon offers clients is horticulture therapy.

“For a lot of these guys, it allows them to sit and be involved in any way they can. A lot of them can’t be out there digging,” Wegner said.

Wegner first planted the bench project seeds when she attended an open house at The Pomegranate Center.

Headquartered in Issaquah, and founded by artist Milenko Matanovic, the Pomegranate Center helps low-income and high-density communities across the country create gathering places and public artwork.

It wasn’t long before its development and outreach coordinator, Hannah Hess, was brainstorming about future collaborations with Wegner.

“I felt like this was a perfect opportunity to do good in Issaquah,” Hess said. “It’s exciting to be able to do something right in our own community for an amazing organization.”

Pumped up projects

A while later when Hess got a phone call from Foster the Future, the philanthropic arm of indie pop band Foster the People, she knew just where to focus the organization’s energy. When the band first formed in 2009, the members agreed that if they did become successful and famous they would use their celebrity to encourage people to get involved and do good for their communities.

Since breaking through with the song “Pumped Up Kicks,” the band has kept its promise. This year’s Do Good Project includes 15 projects in 15 different cities along the band’s North American tour. Tavon was No. 9 on the list.

“We do a lot of research before we hit the road,” said Rebecca Pontius, sister of the band’s drummer, Mark Pontius. When she wasn’t helping pull weeds and dig holes for the bench legs in Issaquah, she worked to keep up the volunteer event’s momentum. “This was a perfect fit.”

On the Web

Watch a time-lapse video from the project on The Pomegranate Center’s Facebook page, pomegranatecenter.

While some volunteers with specialized carpentry skills were on hand, others had never picked up a hammer. But Marnelle Helling, a volunteer from Issaquah, didn’t think that mattered.

“I think people kind of get intimidated but mostly you just have to show up,” she said.

Lifelong friends Sophie Kashman, 10, and Mikeeli Houston, 11, were happy just to spend a day together digging in the dirt and munching on the doughnuts that were available for volunteers.

“We wanted to help out,” Kashman said. “These people deserve to have help. And it’s fun.”

Tavon founder Therese Vafaeezadeh was also working side-by-side with the volunteers.

“It’s just so great to see people come out and help,” she said. “I just think being able to get outdoors is so healthy, and a lot of people with disabilities don’t get the chance to do so.”

Activities and independence

The Tavon Center grew out of the worry that two parents had for their disabled daughter.

“As she reached her early teen years we got really concerned — what was she going to do once she graduated?” Vafaeezadeh said. “It was important to me that she stay active. She loves the outdoors, so what better than a garden?”

The nonprofit got off the ground in 2003 and for the next five years Vafaeezadeh and her team were busy fundraising and building the center itself. Now, four years after its doors were first opened, Tavon has gone from three clients to 40.

“Everyone is friendly here. I love helping out with the garden,” said Nikolai Conboy-Smith, 20, who lives nearby in Sammamish and likes to take advantage of sunny days by biking to Tavon. “I love it here. It’s a really welcoming environment. There should be more people who have disabilities that come here.”

From feeding the chickens to going on group outings to parks, zoos and restaurants, Tavon offers a chance to socialize that is often lost, Vafaeezadeh said, when people move on from school.

“That to me is what this is all about — she is able to have friendship,” she said. Her daughter recently went on her first date with a fellow client from the center. “She can come here every day and have her own thing to do and have that independence.”

From market to marketing

To go along with that independence are lessons in life skills and work. Clients help prepare lunch, bake and do chores around the property. They also take the fruits of their labor to Gilman Village from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Thursday. There, they sell flowers, vegetables, herbs, eggs and cookies. All the money, Wegner said, goes back into the center and helps provide grants to clients who need help with living expenses.

“The biggest thing that we do here is purposeful work,” Wegner said. “Our farmers market is a great way for clients to get out and introduce themselves to the community and sell their products.”

To buy the materials for the bench project, Tavon raised $1,700 through the charity arm of Groupon. The money left after covering the event’s expenses, Wegner added, will also go into the grant fund.

“Since I have bad knees, it’s hard to move around a lot,” said Michelle Johnson, 22, a client at the center, adding that the new benches will be very useful.

She said she is looking forward to sitting on them and better weather.

Lillian Tucker: 392-6434, ext. 242, or Comment at

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One Response to “Foster the People lends a hand to center for disabled adults”

  1. Foster the People Help Build Nonprofit Center on July 14th, 2012 1:06 pm

    […] Issaquah Press reports on the band’s latest charitable venture: lending a helping hand to the nonprofit […]

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