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Every day, Donna Yeiter tends to a variety of tomato plants beside the maintenance building at the five-acre Sacramento Loaves and Fishes campus. Nurtured by the California sunshine and Donna’s tender, loving care (“They’re like my babies”) she also looks after the trees and roses, squash, peppers, more vegetables, and herbs used to augment salads served to 600-800 men, women and children seven days a week at Loaves and Fishes.

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Donna is not only a volunteer gardener, but she is also a resident at Sister Nora’s Place, within Loaves and Fishes. It provides a long-term overnight shelter for 16 chronically homeless, mentally ill women. Donna explains that learning to adjust to life off the street has been a big challenge. However, her transition to independence via re-training at Loaves and Fishes has been a life-changing one.

“My weekly mentor and the very helpful people I call my family at Loaves and Fishes have taught me how to live indoors,” says Donna, who suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, and previously lived in a tent under a bridge for 25 years. In addition to having a roof over her head, Donna’s integration at Loaves and Fishes has provided basic personal care and development.

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Donna proudly reports, “I have gained self dignity, seen a dentist, got eyeglasses. I groom my dreadlocks and even learned to ride the bus. I don’t have to feel scared every day and I get fed. But dignity is the biggest blessing of all.”

While learning new skills every day, Donna is “giving back a great gift as she beautifies and helps us feed others,” says Sister Libby Fernandez, Executive Director of Sacramento Loaves and Fishes. The garden project is truly a perfect fit. “She needs that space. Our vegetable gardens allow Donna to be outdoors as she takes the time she needs to transition,” Sister Libby adds.

Like her beloved tomato plants, the future holds ripe possibilities for Donna Yeiter to live independently and to put her practical gardening skills to use beyond Loaves and Fishes.

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This article was written by Laurie Jo Miller Farr via Examiner.com for CBS Local Media