From Seed to Sustainability: Using Gardens to Promote Educational Outcomes and Community Development

3rd Creek Foundation is a small foundation with a very big mission, and it is important to me that our resources fund projects that have the potential to do the greatest good. In everyday life I would consider this getting the most bang for my buck, and in foundation-speak it is called impact.

As we continue our work with grantees in Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Vietnam, I frequently reflect on our vision statement and the ways in which our partners are having an impact on their communities. This year we awarded a discretionary grant to support education and economic development in rural Uganda, and last month I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Kiganda, where I gained a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by this welcoming and engaging community. The greatest takeaway from this visit was the opportunity to witness what I consider, albeit on a small scale, to be the realization of our 3rd Creek vision: active participation, economic independence, and integrity.

What does it look like to be an active participant? How does one become economically independent? I have found that the answers to these questions are different, and vary significantly by culture, geography, and available resources. What worked in Kiganda, may not work in the Sarlahi District of Southeast Nepal, but as a case study it can help guide how we structure future income generation projects in that community.

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This sustainability success story began in 2008, when Sister Carla Kovack from Dominican University of California worked as a guest teacher at St. Matia Malumba Primary School in Kiganda. She observed poor attendance and students who were tired and distracted by the afternoon lessons. Her observations have been well documented by others and that is why organizations such as the World Bank and World Food Programme have prioritized school feeding programs. School meals alleviate short-term hunger, increase concentration and enrollment, and are now considered a potential safety net that keeps children in school. Sister Carla knew that a $5,000 grant from the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael might become available, and assertively she put a plan together to purchase grain from a nearby town with those funds.

However, during a conversation with the headmistress at St. Matias, Sister Carla was presented with another idea. The headmistress, Sister Christine Nawazzi, proposed a school meals program that not only would feed the students in the short term, but also for many years to come. She knew that eventually more funding would be required to purchase more grain. In spite of the best of intentions, the $5,000 grant would establish a dependency of ongoing support in order for a meal program to continue, a conundrum that many NGOs and benefactors face every day. What Sister Christine proposed instead, was a community garden. The school would acquire and tend to land that would yield corn that they could mill into flour and use to feed the students. In addition to feeding the students, the garden would create a teaching opportunity. Twice a year, once at planting and once at harvest, the students would tend to the crops in an outdoor classroom, where they would learn about biology and agriculture. The student contribution also would minimize the need for outside labor. In addition to yielding food for the meal program, seeds from the garden would eventually become a source of income to further fund the program.

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Sister Christine was awarded the grant of $5,000 to establish a garden and create a meal program and in 2014, six years later, the feeding program continues at St. Matias. I recently learned that the funds from the original grant are now fully depleted, and the program is in need of extra support. However, in lieu of requesting another grant and entering the cycle of dependency, Sister Christine presented an option to the school families: they would need to contribute 3,000 Ugandan Schillings per semester (equivalent to a little more than one US dollar) for each student in order to continue the program or else it would be discontinued. She received an overwhelming response from the community that the feeding program was so important that they would find a way to contribute individually.

By way of her vision and leadership, Sister Christine created an opportunity for the parents in her school to support their children’s education. She received a grant that was both literally and figuratively seed money, to create a resource that now receives ongoing support from the village and in turn benefits their children. In my view this is what active participation looks like, and this is how to create economic independence.

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When I reflect on the story of Sister Christine’s garden, I am both inspired and motivated by the way the Kigandans have created a sustainable solution to address hunger and support education in their community. I am also filled with new questions. Now that the students have food security at school, can something be done to fortify those meals to improve student health and keep them in school even longer? Through further collaboration with Sister Christine and other community leaders can we discover more sustainable solutions to bring greater impact to Kiganda? The obstacles to economic development often feel insurmountable, but I believe that progress is possible with something as simple as a planting garden.

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Erica Jordan has served on the board of 3rd Creek Foundation since 2007. In addition to her work with 3rd Creek, Erica is a Court Appointed Special Advocate and board treasurer for Haight Ashbury Psychological Services. Erica has lived in London and Norway, and traveled for work and study throughout Europe, Turkey, Uganda, Nepal and the Philippines. She received her BA in Classical Studies from King’s College London, and after focusing on family for several years, she has returned to school to pursue an MBA in Global Management from Dominican University of California. Erica is an avid photographer and loves to garden.