WILLMAR — In Myanmar, the Karen carved gardens out of the mountainous green landscape. They planted thick patchworks of vegetables, greens and herbs and harvested them to feed their villages.
Their community garden in Willmar, occupying half an acre at Grace Baptist Church, grows many of the same crops. There's corn, eggplant and hot peppers. Pumpkin vines, prized for their green leaves as well as their fruit, trail along the ground and twine their way up wire trellises.
Tours of the garden were among the highlights at an open house Aug. 3 to promote health and create community connections with the Karen, one of the immigrant groups making Willmar an increasingly diverse city.
The event was co-organized by Grace Baptist Church and the Carris Health Rice Regional Dental Clinic as part of a year-long project to reach out to the Karen with oral health information and services.
"This is something I've always wanted," said Dr. Linda Jackson, director of the regional dental clinic. "Oral health is a big issue. We want to see more access to our services."
Over the past decade or so, about 400 Karen have made Willmar their home. Although they are one of Willmar's smaller immigrant groups, their presence statewide has grown, swelling from around 600 in 2000 to nearly 10,000 by 2017, according to Minnesota Compass.
Most have fled persecution and violence in their homeland of Myanmar, sometimes arriving in neighboring Thailand with only the clothes on their back, said the Rev. Ron Snyder, pastor of Grace Baptist Church.
Snyder and his wife, Nancy, have welcomed them, providing resources and connections to help them sink new roots in rural west central Minnesota. "A lot of them are coming out here now because the housing is cheaper," Snyder said, noting that 28 of the Karen households in his congregation are now homeowners.
For health providers like Jackson, there have been challenges in reaching out to the Karen and improving access to needed health care services.
Jackson heads the regional dental clinic at Carris Health, focusing on patient populations that are unserved, underserved or otherwise lack access to dental care. The facility also is a rural training site for dental students at the University of Minnesota.
The staff is well-practiced at providing care to the Hispanic and Somali populations that make up Willmar's largest groups of newcomers. But there was a gap when it came to the Karen, Jackson said.
Part of it was the language barrier, she said. A bigger challenge, though, was simply connecting with the Karen community, she said. "We know they're here, but where are they?"
This year the Rice Regional Dental Clinic partnered with Grace Baptist Church to apply to the Willmar Idea Fund, an initiative by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota to stimulate innovative grassroots approaches to health equity. The Karen oral health project is among 21 local projects awarded Idea Fund grants to tackle issues ranging from autism to multicultural women's fitness.
The grant enabled Carris Health to develop a bilingual brochure with information about dental care, dental disease and how to make an appointment at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic. A message in Karen was added to the clinic's telephone answering service. The grant also supports a Karen interpreter.
The Aug. 3 garden tour was one in a series of events organized through the oral health project to encourage cross-cultural connections and learning. "They're part of the community and we want people to mingle with this community," Jackson said.
About 70 people were on hand to see the garden and meet the gardeners. Tours were followed by a buffet of vegetable pizzas and fresh fruit, educational talks on dental health, food safety and hunting and fishing regulations, and a recipe and seed swap.
Heh Nay, who has lived in Minnesota for 15 years, manages the garden and helps dole out the plots to the 20 or so participating households. His wife, Celia Soe, works with the Carris Health oral health project as an interpreter.
Minnesota's climate has been a learning curve for the Karen gardeners, Nay said. "Every year the weather is different."
But in the three years since the garden was started, it has grown steadily.
What's harvested is often shared among households, Nay said. "People can come and visit and take it home."
The bounty consists mostly of Asian vegetables but there are plans to introduce more American favorites, he said. This year a plot was started for asparagus, called "little bamboo" by the Karen gardeners for its resemblance to young bamboo shoots.
Supporting the garden and the access it provides to fresh food is one of the ways the Willmar health community can promote good oral health for the Karen, Jackson said. "Part of your overall health is nutrition, and food is taken in through the oral cavity."
Before the Idea Fund grant was awarded in February, the Rice Regional Dental Clinic saw an average of six Karen patients per month over six months. Halfway through the grant, the average has grown to 16 per month. A total of 94 patients have come in during the course of the grant period so far, 65 of whom have needed Karen interpreter assistance.
Initially, most of the patients were children, Jackson said. "Now we're seeing more adults coming in. We are making some inroads."
The grant partners are already closing in on their goal of reaching 20 percent of the local Karen population by Dec. 31.
Word of mouth and personal connections like those formed at the garden tour remain a critical tool for outreach, Jackson said. "That's how you get them to participate. This is like a building block. The community is here and there are services they can utilize. We are making progress."