Garden project plants seeds of leadership

The Recorder, June 25, 2018. by Richie Davis

The plot where these North Quabbin teens are gardening on a sunny Thursday afternoon isn’t huge — maybe 20 by 50 feet.

But what it offers, as a core of the 20-year-old Seeds of Leadership program, is plenty of room to grow.

There are the vegetables, here and in the nearby greenhouse — kale and salad greens, scallions, tomatoes and more. But there’s also the weekly program itself, which has enriched the lives of its more than 450 participants over the years as they learn to tend the garden but also one another and to build structures as well as relationships.

Part of the nonprofit Seeds of Solidarity Education Foundation, the program draws students as an after-school program each spring and then continues through the summer as the teens take workshops on cooking and ecological subjects, as well as partake in cultural events and community-building exercises. And it culminates with volunteering activities for the annual North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, which like SOL Garden, Seeds of Solidarity Farm and the nonprofit educational foundation was created by Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc.

“This is for young people who are interested in a positive experience of community,” says Habib, a woman who seems somehow always on the go while being completely centered. She’s munching on a garlic scallion handed to her by one of the first-year “starters.” “It’s nice if they’re interested in gardening and the great outdoors, but that comes. Mostly we’re looking for young people who are interested in being part of a positive community and gaining leadership skills that they can extend outward into the community and continue in their own lives.”

Habib, who met Baruc when they worked at Cape Cod’s New Alchemy Institute, visits Mahar and Athol high school science classes each spring to convey her interest in sustainable gardening and green energy, and to recruit young people who are interested in volunteering for the roughly 20-week program, April through August, funded by the Mass Cultural Council, Greenleaf Foundation and private contributions.

“I was really trying to get into gardening at the time,” recalls third-year SOL member and Royalston resident Olivia Parnanen, 17, about when she joined the program after hearing Habib speak in her chemistry class. “But then I realized it’s so much more than gardening. It’s like a little community: no matter what, everyone loves you and you’re accepted by all, and it’s best to be yourself here. I just love how they encourage you to be the best you can be. This place is more a place for you to grow than for you to grow plants. It’s like a return to innocence, sort of, in the human basics. And there are a lot of cultural things — they try to expand our minds beyond our own country. These are people living their lives in a totally different way.”

In addition to projects around the garden — like the greenhouse and sheds built by SOL members — there are presentations, like this afternoon’s workshop and garden blessing led by Bamidele Drummers and Dancers Director Marilyn Sylla and a spoken word session with Wendell poet Paul Richmond and a visit by 2011-12 alumnus Zach Gordon.

“It taught me about being honest in a lot of different ways: how to be honest with yourself, with who you are, and what your abilities are, in what you do,” says Gordon, a 2011 Mahar graduate who went on to attend Greenfield Community College, get a sociology degree from the University of Massachusetts, and now go on to work on a master’s in sustainable food systems from Green Mountain College. “The hook for me was having a group of people I could come to every week and grow with them. And thinking about these bigger issues, about living in a world where people don’t have to starve. And getting affirmation that I do have a part in this and I can help change it, when the world outside you is always saying, ‘No, you can’t help it much. Especially coming from Orange, where I watched so many of my peers crumbled to the wayside because generational poverty has a strong hold on people. It was very hard for me to go to school. And it continues to be so.”

Each SOL session begins with an opening circle, and at today’s gathering, as teens pass around bags of crackers and cookies, Habib asks for volunteers to serve at the Orange community meal, where she plans to bring a garlic-pesto salad and stir-fried bok choy with carrots.

“Part of the magic of the group is that the kids come with a diversity of life experiences,” she tells a visitor. “Some have been successful in school and society, some have struggled more, some have harder lives, or less so. But the experience of just being here together and engaged in authentic work transcends all of that.”

The experience a few minutes later, dealing with an enormous spider on one of the tomato plants in the greenhouse where a group of the young gardeners — some more timid than others — brings them together in surprise about its size as well as laughter. Volunteer Micky McKinley, who brings years of experience as a Hitchcock Center nature educator as she tosses the mother spider with attached egg sac back into the wild with words of encouragement.

“I totally love it,” McKinley says about her four years of volunteering here. “They feel safe and accepted, they don’t feel judged and it changes their lives. We do all these programs and eat together and make food together, and many of these kids open up about their feelings, and this is a place where they feel OK doing that.”

Intern Sta Maodzwa, a student from Zimbabwe in GCC’s Sustainable Farm and Food Systems program, plans to set up a program for rural schoolchildren based on what she’s seen in Orange when she returns to Africa. Maodzwa, who has done marketing and business development for Nestle, British American Tobacco and BP, said helping women and disadvantaged youth “would be something meaningful to do.”

It’s no coincidence that SOL is also a reference to Habib’s and Baruc’s commitment to the sun, which powers the pump for the water Maodzwa’s hauling in large buckets. The sun also symbolizes the rising hopes for these young gardeners as they envision their own futures.

“I’ve learned to take opportunities whenever you’re given them,” says Monty Duprey, 14, of Athol, “I’ve learned there really are a bunch of different plants, and different ways to prepare them, and that making these plants is a lot harder than it seems … But everyone here’s just so kind and caring. They feel like family.”

Dakota Gilman, an 18-year-old fourth-year SOL mentor, says he wasn’t really sure if he was going to like the summer program when a neighbor first recommended it, but it’s helped him “see more of, like, reality, and what I want in life,” and show him that he may want to go into landscaping, or photography as an expression of the beauty he sees around him.

Gordon, who’s been managing a Boston pizzeria that specializes in using local products, sees himself inspired by his SOL experience, so that he hopes to return from graduate school to set up a nonprofit to fight food insecurity in North Quabbin.

“I’m not sure exactly what that looks like at the moment,” says Gordon, as he describes what sounds like Habib and Baruc’s work coming full circle, “but am hoping to include a lot of education about local food, and if we advocate for funding … for funding for local food, and create a local economy where producers are able to make the money and we’re able to lower the prices and make it more affordable for people, we’ll all be eating better and there wont be as many hungry people.”

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