Community

Bellevue's Sunflower Man finds hope, gives back to Hopelink

A path made of sunflower-painted stepping stones lead the way through the lush garden in the backyard of Maybin Chisebuka's home in Bellevue's Eastgate community.

Tall yellow sunflowers tower high above the organically grown garden full of fresh produce and colorful flowers. A group of kids from The Children’s Studio, a nearby preschool, made the trek to Chisebuka's garden oasis Wednesday, August 12 to explore, learn and help pick an assortment of vegetables to donate to Hopelink.

To meet them, Chisebuka, dressed in a neon orange hat, orange Crocks and a bright green shirt, helped the kids sort the fresh vegetables and encouraged them as they headed back into his garden in search for more buried treasure.

"They call me the sunflower man," he said with a hearty laugh. "Watching these kids having so much fun in the garden and learning as they play gives me so much joy."

Chisebuka's love for gardening began in his birthplace in Zambia, Africa. Out of curiosity and determination, he grew a small garden from scratch.

"In the village where I lived, they told us nothing would grow. I knew there was water and dirt so I thought I would try anyway," he explained. "I found seeds from a plant that looks like an eggplant but grows like a shrub. It took about four months and my place looked like a mini farm. Everyone in my village was amazed."

When Chisebuka was 29, he approached an airline company and asked for a donation for a plane ticket to America. He wanted to go to school in the states and was determined to make it happen. The airline donated a plane ticket and Chisebuka left Africa for Seattle with a single briefcase, a pair of pants and a sweater.

"I had $300 in my pocket, but I was determined to go to school and make a good life for myself," he said.

Once in Bellevue, Chisebuka found Hopelink, a non-profit organization serving low-income families on the Eastside.

"I was only making $4.75 an hour while in school and I had two children to support," he said. "I am so thankful for Hopelink and all the ways they helped me and my family. It is now my turn to give back to my community."

Chisebuka also crossed paths with Eastgate resident Peter Wright, a man who dedicated his life to breaking down the social and cultural barriers of his neighborhood to create a community.

With Hopelink's help and guidance from Wright, Chisebuka now is carrying on Wright's legacy.

"To me, gardening speaks of hope in a hopeless situation," he said. "If I hadn't left Africa, I would probably be dead right now because of AIDS or disease. I knew I could make my life better. Even though I didn't have the resources at the time, determination opened the door."

Chisebuka began gardening four years ago, digging out rocks, moving dirt and bringing in topsoil and compost. He has since turned his modest backyard into a mini garden paradise for the community to share.

"The sunflowers were one of the first seeds I planted because I wanted it to be a focal point for our community. A community needs energy and the sunflowers attract people and bring them together," Chisebuka explained. "Gardening is all about sharing. I thought this would be a good way to inspire kids to get them to start thinking about gardening and community."

Lindsay Larin can be reached at 425.453.4602.

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