In 1998, Shari Seifert Fitzgerald planted the seed that would soon grow into The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado. Originally named Greens & Things, the organization served at-risk youth, providing access to therapeutic gardening. Two decades later, we’ve evolved into a multifaceted nonprofit serving youth, food insecure families and individuals, and community members who have an interest in growing produce and digging in with their community.
A lot can happen in 20 years. We’ve experienced the toll of full organizational shifts, seeing beloved gardens close, and even considered the possibility of shutting the whole operation down. But for every setback, we’ve seen even more growth, optimism, perseverance in return. We’ve grown from one staff member to six. For many years we were without a showcase garden, but now have three under our belt. Most importantly, we’ve seen our community impact grow year in and year out. We’ve donated thousands of pounds of food to those in need, taught thousands of students the wonders of eating fruits and veggies, and have provided the Durango community with a gardening haven.
Now it’s time to reflect. In 2018, we will share 20 stories or experiences from 20 folks who have been impacted by The Garden Project. From former staff, to community members, to business partners, we will be looking back on the grassroots impact TGP has made in our area.
Above: Shari Fitzgerald (third from right) and Darcy Parrillo (second from right) with TGP volunteers and a family who had just received a backyard garden.
Darcy Parrillo served as Assistant Director to The Garden Project from 2008 to 2011 at a time when the organization was manned by a two person staff (and, like most small nonprofits, a star group of volunteers). Though capacity was low and resources limited, Darcy and Shari Fitzgerald weren’t deterred by inconveniences.
“I spent a lot of time at the library using it as an office,” said Parillo.
Fast forward 10 years to the future. In that time, Darcy moved out of state, earned her master’s degree in nutrition from UC Berkeley, and followed her professional pursuits in California. She resided on the west coast until late 2017, when she found herself moving back to Durango to serve as the Program Manager for Cooking Matters, a branch of Share Our Strengths. It must have proved surprising when she found her new office sat right next door to The Garden Project. In her time away, the organization gained four more staff members and it’s own private working space.
“It kind of blew my mind to come back and see that The Garden Project had an office, staff, and Americorps. It just makes me really happy to see that it’s still alive and well,” she said. “We’re living in a world that is changing super fast and taking us further and further away from keeping our hands in the dirt. So it feels good to me to have an organization like this still rooted in the community and hopefully able to thrive and exist despite how much change is happening all the time.”
Above: Fitzgerald (left), her children, and Parrillo (right) after installing a garden at city hall.
In Parrillo’s time with The Garden Project, the Needham Garden was serving as a new addition to the school, the process of breaking ground on the Manna Garden had just begun, and there was talk of potentially starting a new community garden that would eventually become Ohana Kuleana. Most days focused on school garden education, with TGP crews working with students at the Needham and Fort Lewis Mesa gardens. Parrillo was part of the inaugural Dirt Club, our after-school program that focuses on gardening, healthy snacks, and nature-based games and crafts.
“A lot of time [Dirt Club] ran word of mouth,” she said. “One week a little girl would invite her two friends, which was cool because anyone who came was always welcome. We were never going to turn anyone away.”
Above: Parrillo serving as a garden educator at an early Needham Elementary Farmer Days.
She saw gardens open and close. Parrillo and Fitzgerald worked together to install a garden at Durango City Hall, which is still active and maintained by City employees. In the same timeframe, a garden that stood behind the Durango Commons Building put its beds to rest for good. Additionally, the two began a program called the Backyard Garden Giveaway. This involved community members submitting applications to have TGP, in collaboration with CSU Extension La Plata and the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center, install a vegetable garden at their home. Gardens were installed each year for families with an interest in health and wellness. Recipient families were generally chosen based on their economic position and their potential to influence their community to grow food or eat healthier.
On the surface, The Garden Project seems like it changed vastly between Parrillo’s time with the organization and the present. However, there is so much at the core that has remained. She remembers organizing Farmer Days at Needham, an event TGP still puts on twice a year. The Garden Project had strong partnerships with CSU Extension, Cooking Matters, Upward Bound, Manna - groups we are still working with side by side today. She also worked with Livewell and coordinated the Tour de Farms bicycle ride of local farms and gardens, which celebrated its 11th annual ride in 2017.
Now the Program Manager at Cooking Matters SW Colorado, Parrillo works directly with local food insecurity and nutrition issues. A large part of her job involves teaching residents how to eat healthy under federal assistance and our two organizations often team up, as we share similar community goals and values. She says her time at The Garden Project was a significant stepping stone in her career path that set her in the trajectory of where she is today.
“I think my experience here helped me get into graduate school and is certainly a big piece of the puzzle to where I am in my career,” Parrillo said. “It was definitely an opportunity to run something on my own and do what I wanted with it. I’m really grateful for that.”
Above: Parrillo (far right) works on a backyard garden with a family and volunteers.