“It Tastes Like Spring.”

I’m not the first person to vouch for the benefits of volunteering, but it’s a truth that bears repeating, so here goes:

I’ve been on my search for the Next Thing for a while now, and there was a spell towards winter’s end during which I began to feel slightly crummy. Though I was getting crucial support and encouragement from friends, and was still going to yoga and zumba and book group, and was excited to be connecting with all kinds of people, I was starting to run out of steam. A couple of possibilities I’d had my heart set on hadn’t worked out. Meeting new people and describing to them why I’d left a snazzy job to look for work in the uncertain world of social entrepreneurs got harder. It was late February.

One morning I called an organization I’d volunteered for before and offered to jump back in. Since March 1st I’ve been spending Wednesday mornings at Hope Farm, a Food Moxie program with Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The program is for differently-abled students and it includes horticultural therapy, job skills, and life skills.

I love everything about it: learning from the kids and the educators, spending time outside and in the greenhouse nurturing plants, and using my nascent photography skills to document the program for an organization that doesn’t have a lavish communications budget. The kids are smart, sweet, and serious about learning. Yesterday four of them, with 24-hours’ notice, gave a presentation on container gardening to an audience of several dozen adults at a conference. With confidence, they listed appropriate types of containers for growing herbs and vegetables, and what kinds of fertilizers to use. They demonstrated how to transplant seedlings and explained how often to water them. And they delighted the audience with their answers to the question, “out of all the things you grow, what are your favorites to eat?” “Heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, and kale,” they responded. In less public venues, the kids also have heartfelt, inspiring things to say. When asked to describe the taste of a freshly-picked sorrel leaf, one student thoughtfully replied, “it tastes like spring.”

When I was invited to write an article for Food Moxie’s “Why I Give” series I struggled a bit. The minute I decided to write about the program instead of about me, the difficulty dissipated. It’s the same thing with volunteering. I get a tremendous amount out of it, paradoxically, because I am focusing on other people. I’ve got all my energy back and then some, and my search for the Next Thing continues.

Published in May 2017 in The Shuttle, the Weavers Way Coop monthly newspaper:

How many organizations take you on miles-long bike tours of your very own city, through neighborhoods you may not have explored before, showing you urban farms of all shapes and sizes? And demonstrates to parents with families experiencing homelessness how to cook with savory sofrito? Then, when those families find housing, supplies them with kitchen equipment and teaches them how to plan and shop for meals? And also runs in-school and after-school horticulture programs for “typically-abled” kids and those with intellectual disabilities?

These are a few of Food Moxie’s meaningful, well-designed programs that I’ve had a chance to take part in. The Food Moxie staff I’ve encountered are extraordinary and inspiring: Tara Campbell, the youth-education coordinator with no-nonsense good cheer, who can marshal 10 (or 12 or 24) high school students to plant dozens of trays full of strawflowers, fish peppers and eggplants. Brandon Ritter, the farm-and-garden manager who doesn’t flinch when enthusiastic horticulturists-in-training mistakenly pruned live canes from the blackberries.

Mercelyne Latortue, the nutrition educator whose approachable manner and buoyant energy make everyone feel like they can do it, too. And Melissa Powell, the farm educator who turned cut-up beets and bowls of turmeric and paprika into a vibrant, hands-on lesson in Hindu culture for a classroom full of school-aged residents of Stenton Family Manor, one of Philadelphia’s largest shelters.

I dream of a world in which every child has enough delicious food to eat and gets a first-rate education. In this world, kids learn about gardening, cooking and other cultures, so that they can lead healthy, satisfying lives. Supporting Food Moxie is a way of bringing my dream world closer to reality.