The idea is for the gatherings to grow along with the community garden, each party offering a more involved meal and activities, with ticket prices increasing incrementally and all proceeds supporting LEAD Agency's work.

MIAMI – Along the back and side lots of Miami's LEAD Agency, a community garden is budding, blooming, and seeding – its newest bounty to sustain the environmental work of those who lovingly cultivate it.

The garden, now in its fourth season, serves as a collaborative work and education space that welcomes community members to learn how to safely and economically create their own gardens. An especially important outreach initiative due to the environmental hazards and higher rates of food insecurity affecting Ottawa County.

Miami and Ottawa County as a whole must contend with polluting remnants from historical mining wastes as a result of the lead and zinc mining through the 1960s in the Tri-State Mining District which includes parts of northeastern Oklahoma, southwestern Missouri, and southeastern Kansas.

In its primary role, LEAD, an acronym for Local Environmental Action Demanded, is the only environmental non-profit serving the Tri-State Mining District, which encompasses the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Based in Miami and established in 1997, the agency is headed by one of its founding members, Rebecca Jim, who serves as the executive director and the Tar Creekkeeper with the Waterkeeper Alliance.

LEAD is behind the annual National Environmental Tar Creek Conference, which marked its 19th year in 2017 and in its day-to-day work is engaged in educating the communities of northeastern Oklahoma on environmental concerns, taking action to counter environmental hazards, and bolstering its efforts through partnerships with other environmental groups in the state and nationally.

As a 501(c)3, LEAD operates as federally tax-exempt non-profit, which means the organization is sustained through direct monetary donations, in-kind services and donations, grant funding and volunteer members.

Through its community garden, the agency demonstrates ways to safely garden in yards that are potentially contaminated as well as composting methods, use of recycled materials, and also examples of what not to do – like never using railroad ties for gardening or landscaping as they are chemically treated and toxic.

LEAD also uses the garden in its efforts to advise community members of free property testing and remediation offered by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to Ottawa County (ODEQ).

Now the garden will also serve to help LEAD in continuing its environmental mission with a series of monthly fundraising garden parties through September.

The brain-child of Jim, the fundraising parties will allow community members to follow the garden's progress, enjoy a meal and socialize, and most importantly, learn more about the agency's ongoing work and how to participate.

The idea is for the gatherings to grow along with the garden, each party offering a more involved meal and activities, with ticket prices increasing incrementally and all proceeds supporting LEAD's work.

"When you think of a typical garden party, everything is lush and full and amazing, and by September it will probably look that way, but our garden is a teaching garden. It's a learning space and it's still growing," said Martin Lively, who is working within LEAD Agency as part of the AmeriCorps VISTA program. "So as the garden grows, our goal is to have the community share in that and invite more of them to get involved, because the work being done here is going to need to continue for many, many years to come."

LEAD hosted the first of its garden parties on June 21, welcoming a healthy crowd and serving a simple dinner of hot dogs, tea, and water along with sides of fresh garden carrots, organic pesto, potato salad and chips for $5.

Games of corn-hole dotted the yard and live music filled the air from musician ArkAngelo as attendees mingled, visited the LEAD office, and were entered into a raffle.

As the evening wound down, Jim gathered everyone together to express her gratitude and encourage them to return.

"I am so very grateful for everyone here. After all these years we are finally having a party!" said Jim. "We often come together, but this is our first party and I am excited about all that is happening and all of you."

Upcoming LEAD garden parties are scheduled for July 19, August 16, and Sept. 20. The agency is still seeking community and business partners to help sponsor the gatherings.

To learn more about LEAD Agency, to donate, or to volunteer and become a member, call 918-542-9399, visit https://leadagency.org, connect on Facebook (@leadagencyinc), or stop by the LEAD office, 223 A Street SE, Miami.

Ottawa County residents interested in property testing can contact LEAD Agency or call the ODEQ hotline at 1-800-522-0206.

Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor for the Miami News-Record. Email her at dballard@miaminewsrecord.com and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.