The fresh vegetables from Carolee Vannatta’s Garden of Hope are nourishing more than hungry bodies. They’re feeding the soul.

When this single mother of three toured Wheeler Mission last year and found out that the emergency men’s shelter (one of three Wheeler facilities) provides meals to as many as 750 people on a daily basis, she felt compelled to contribute in some way.

“I love to cook and I’ve done a lot of catering,” Vannatta said. “I noticed that most of the donated food being served was of the institutional variety–canned goods and boxed products–and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to love on these folks by bringing them some fresh food?’ I’m a woman of faith, and I really felt like I was being called to serve in this capacity.”

Vannatta wasn’t quite sure how to go about putting her intentions into action, but after sharing her idea with some friends, plans for a garden quickly took root.

“The friends I was talking with lease farming space on their property near Zionsville, and said they’d be happy to donate some of their land for a garden,” she said. “My brother tilled it up, we planted all sorts of vegetables, and it all just came together.”

Volunteers from local churches and schools caught wind of what Vannatta was doing and pitched in to tend the nearly one-acre garden throughout last summer. To everyone’s delight, the yields were bigger than anyone could have hoped for. Vannatta and her team of supporters harvested hundreds of pounds of fresh yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, Sugar Snap peas and green beans to donate to Wheeler Mission.

“We’d load up laundry baskets of squash that were so heavy, it took two people to lift them!” she laughed.

“It has been a great blessing to receive this fresh produce to serve to our guests,” said Matt Roller, director of emergency shelter services for Wheeler Mission Ministries’ Shelter for Men. “These donations also help our budget as well. The more donations we receive, the less we have to spend. Thus, we can put that money toward programming and services to help our guests break the bonds of poverty and homelessness.”

The whole project has been so rewarding, Vannatta is already setting her goals higher for this year’s garden.

“We’re going to start planting earlier and add lettuces, herbs and garlic to our mix,” she said. “We’re also going to keep bees this year that will hopefully pollinate the plants for bigger harvests.”

In addition, the property owners (who prefer to remain anonymous) own a bunch of old apple trees they’ll be trimming in anticipation of contributing that fruit next fall.

Vannatta hopes her actions will encourage others to plant their own gardens of hope.

“There’s so much need right here in our own communities,” she said. “Even something as small as donating excess vegetables from your garden to a local organization or just setting out an extra plant can make a difference. Maybe you know someone in your neighborhood who struggles financially, or is elderly and may not eat as well as they should. Just bringing a little fresh food to someone is such an easy way to let them know you care about them.”

And the recipients aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“Last year, my children and I delivered some of our vegetables to Wheeler Mission,” Vannatta said. “We got to know the kitchen staff, and we saw the people waiting in line for food. I’m not wealthy by any means, but I realize how fortunate I am that I’ve never had to be in that position. The gratitude and the understanding we gained by helping others has been such a blessing to me and my family.”

“Wheeler’s mission statement is ‘to provide Christ-centered programs and services for the homeless and those in need,’ and I think the service Carolee is providing is as Christ-centered as it gets,” Roller said. “She and her family and friends are sacrificing their time, talent and treasury so that those who are hungry may eat, and eat healthy.”

Every donation, every plant, every bite makes a difference. Vannatta says she’s happy to talk with others about ideas for starting a garden of hope or donating fresh food to a local organization. She can be reached at


Feeling inspired by Vannatta’s example? Here’s a partial list of Central Indiana organizations providing food and meals to those in need. You’ll also find a comprehensive list of churches, community centers, food pantries and soups kitchens accepting donations at

American Red Cross Food Pantry of Central Indiana
15325 Herriman Blvd., Noblesville | 317.773.0380

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana
3737 Waldemere Ave., Indianapolis | 317.925.0191

Great Harvest Food Pantry
2516 E. Stop 11 Rd., Indianapolis | 317.657.4998

Hunger Inc.
1416 E. Epler Ave., Indianapolis | 317.782.3321

Mid-North Food Pantry
3333 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis | 317.924.7900

Midwest Food Bank
6450 S. Belmont Ave., Indianapolis | 317.786.8980

Salvation Army Red Shield Center of Johnson County
3100 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis Greenwood | 317.881.2505

Second Helpings
1121 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis | 317.632.2664

Society of St. Vincent De Paul
4202 Boulevard Place, Indianapolis | 317.921.1401

Zionsville Food Pantry at Zionsville Presbyterian Church
4775 W. 116th St., Zionsville | 317.873.6503

Fresh produce Carole Topalian

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