It’s been twenty years since Shari Fitzgerald was assigned a project in her senior sociology class at Fort Lewis College. While her classmates spent the semester working closely with local nonprofits and organizations, Fitzgerald took a different approach. She created her own.
What would later turn into the The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado started as Greens and Things, an organization that provided at-risk youth with garden therapy. At the time, Fitzgerald was working with the same populations through other local organizations. It was then she noticed the kids she was working with responded well to being outdoors and getting their hands in the dirt.
Groundbreaking for the Smiley Garden in 1998 with La Plata Youth Services.
And so the project began. Through her connections at La Plata Youth Services and SASO, Shari began introducing gardening to local at-risk youth. The first garden they worked on was at the Smiley Building, where they held their groundbreaking ceremony in May of 1998. It was a time of new beginnings around Durango - at the same time Greens and Things was beginning to get youth in the garden, Katrina Blair was starting Turtle Lake Refuge and Carol Clark had just gotten the local Farmers Market rolling.
It wasn’t a large organization, but it was effective. Greens and Things ran off roughly a $500 budget for the first few years, supplies and funds generally coming from Fitzgerald and friends holding yard sales or selling produce at the farmers market. Even so, they were still able to open gardens at the Riverbend Center for Youth and the North and South Durango Housing Corporations. Most importantly, Greens and Things was successfully creating spaces and opportunities for young people to find refuge through gardening.
Hand drawn Greens N Things yard sale fundraiser poster.
“To me, it was more just about getting youth to connect with their community,” she said. “Food was, for me, secondary. It was plants and people, and if we got to eat good food out of it that was even better.”
In 2004, a shift began. Greens and Things teamed up with Growing Community Food Project, which linked Shari’s foundation of children’s therapeutic gardening to horticultural therapy for adults and local food systems. With this partnership, The Garden Project of SW Colorado (TGP) was born. The organization received 501(c)3 nonprofit status and started operating off substantial funding through a USDA Food Assessment grant awarded to the local food system coalition, Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado, and it’s partners including The Garden Project.
Over the next few years, Fitzgerald kept youth at the forefront of the organization but also added the Manna garden to the list of new projects in 2005. Gardens continued to be built around La Plata County where Shari and volunteers would lead garden work days and welcome anyone to join. They took small youth groups to La Boca, a local educational farm, and for hikes around Turtle Lake.
Students decorating the Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary Garden for Halloween.
In 2006, Fitzgerald took on a new challenge and began building the Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary garden. Still functional today, the ¼ acre garden is a fun space where the students call the shots. Since the earliest days of the garden, students have decided on the layout, crop planning, decor, and more. In 2008, The Garden Project built their second school garden at Needham Elementary, which still serves as one of the organization’s showcase gardens.
With the new school gardens installed, Fitzgerald’s organizational model for TGP was beginning to shift, providing more opportunities to all youth. Though transitioning into the schools was a positive step for the organization that opened many doors, it wasn’t the easiest change. Working with the school district was uncharted and intimidating territory. Additionally, it meant expanding from Shari’s primary focus on high or at risk populations.
“I think I was a little nervous to get involved with Durango 9R School District because I hadn’t yet developed many connections. I also wanted to make sure we didn’t lose sight of helping kids that didn’t have the same opportunities,” said Fitzgerald. “I don’t know that our services back then were as equitable as they are now, and I had a feeling that we weren’t doing enough.”
Shari Fitzgerald teaching a lesson on fresh produce in the early days of the Needham Garden.
Transitioning into the schools was a big step that made The Garden Project what it is today. After-school clubs, visits from farmers, educational programs, and farm-to-school initiatives were a product of creating a school garden network. And even still, Shari and the TGP team found ways to work with underserved populations while providing general elementary garden education. Backyard Garden Giveaways began, a program that provided low-income families with vegetable gardens to reap produce from. Scholarship funds were created for school garden programs, ensuring that any kid could participate in after school clubs or summer camps, despite family income.
Additionally, the organization has spent many years partnering with Manna Soup Kitchen to provide gardening opportunities and healthy food to those in need. When the partnership was initiated in 2005, TGP organized and held work days in the small garden on the west side of the culinary building. The food reaped from the beds went into meals cooked at the soup kitchen, just as it is today. After receiving grant funding, TGP’s involvement with Manna grew significantly around 2007. The garden moved locations on the property and at least doubled in size. Over time, organizations such as Upward Bound and Cooking Matters have joined the partnership, which has lead to more families in need receiving better food. And after years of growing Manna programs, the garden is now putting out more produce and serving more clientele than in years past.
In 2011, Shari left The Garden Project, though she later would come back to join the board and served as a Interim Director twice more until Sandhya Tillotson, TGP’s current director, filled the position in 2012. Since then, she’s spent her time raising her three children, working on her farm, substitute teaching, and gardening with the students at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary. Looking back at 20 years of The Garden Project, the organization that was started in a senior sociology class, Fitzgerald is happy. Being able to see the organization continue to grow and find success after her term has been a huge accomplishment. She’s also proud to look back and see the community impact she was able to make. Though The Garden Project’s focus has grown, our programs still work closely with at-risk youth organizations such as La Plata Youth Services, Rainbow Youth Center (focused on supporting LBGTQ youth) , and Trio Upward Bound (focused on supporting first generation college students).
“For me personally, starting The Garden Project is still something I feel proud of today. And I felt fortunate to work with an organization that could address a variety of issues within the community.” said Fitzgerald.
“When we were getting started, The Garden Project was packed into my Subaru. It started with some donated tools and seeds, my little kids by my side, and the support of my husband & friends. It took awhile for The Garden Project to have a life of its own. Starting a nonprofit, or any business for that matter, tends to start with a few passionate people who love their work and believe in its ability to make a difference. My goal back then was that one day The Garden Project would be an organization that could thrive whether or not I played a significant role. To hear that TGP won nonprofit of the year, years after I had left, was certainly proof of that.”
Fitzgerald working with a group of kids at Durango Housing Corporation North.
Shari’s notable moment:
Joining Growing Partners, completing the food assessment and receiving the first Food Project grants back in 2005 were the biggest organizational milestones and fuel for TGP when I was there because they increased our staff, visibility, and partnerships. The first time we tallied 1500 volunteer hours in a year and grew the number of new and continuing partnerships to 40 was also huge.
But when I look back at the things that really make me feel the most proud, they’re the simple interactions or conversations. Such as having kids tell me they didn’t need my help anymore on a project or watching 10 year olds enjoy sweating while moving a wheelbarrow full of rocks or overhearing kids discuss with their peers how they actually liked tomatoes or how the gardens meant something to them. Early on I worked with kids who were in some serious trouble, on probation and going down a tough road. I later heard stories about how these same kids would return to the gardens to show their friends what they had done and others who found jobs in agriculture.