This story is from our program director, Kim Rillero.
The first time I saw Agave Farms, on a sweltering Sunday in May 2019, I thought that it was a little rough around the edges — to say the least. To be fair, the urban farm and community garden were closed for the summer, but there were still several people wearing wide-brimmed hats, hunched over and working in their gardens, in the heat of the blazing sun. The parking lot was gated and locked, and the rest of the 17-acre farm looked like a ghost town.
I was there because my husband knew the owner, Mike McMahon, who had invited us to tour the farm in downtown Phoenix — but at first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That changed when Mike led us to an area where he makes his own soil substrate and gardening kit, called the Ready Go Garden system. We were standing in front of bags of soil, with drip irrigation raised up on metal tables meant to allow the user to garden while standing up. What an advantage, I thought — no hunching over or kneeing down in the dirt.
Mike explained that the tables come in different heights to accommodate the young and those in wheelchairs. He said that he had installed gardens in several nonprofits as well as a school, and he wanted to see a garden in every underserved school, every shelter, and every elder care and veterans’ home — possibly even in refugee camps worldwide. I was so impressed with his vision that I thought, “Boy, would I like to work for this company someday.”
Four months later, I was working for Urban Farming Education, a newly formed, loosely structured, all hands-on deck grassroots nonprofit that set out to build gardens for other nonprofits in Maricopa County. I knew there would be an adjustment period, but I was confident that my experiences working and living in developing countries and my unwavering desire to help others would be all I needed to fit in.
My, how wrong I was.
The learning curve was steeper than I expected. There are no manuals and only one full-time employee (me), and it was often difficult to explain the purpose of our nonprofit to the people we were trying to help. At one of our sites, I couldn’t even get residents to open their front door so I could introduce myself and give them free organic produce from their Ready Go Garden system, let alone walk over to their side yard to help weed and harvest the garden. So many times, I came home crying, telling my husband that this job just isn’t for me. Yet I knew it was, if I could only hold on.
And then one day, I was at CPLC, a domestic violence and homeless shelter in Phoenix, dropping off fruit and vegetable seedlings for the residents to plant later that day. I was trying to juggle a couple of flats of veggies when two residents, Mr. R and his son Damion, came up and asked if they could help. I was overjoyed. My first volunteers! We walked and talked all the way to the garden. I was not prepared to plant but I saw an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss out on, so I hiked up my skirt, got down on my knees, and started to explain the difference between weeds and the plants. Damion was a bit confused when I encouraged him to start pulling weeds, but once he got the hang of it, he cleaned up an entire row. I asked him if he would like to plant some seedlings with me, and he sheepishly said yes.
I started digging a hole in the soil with my hand. The look on Damion’s face was that of utter confusion and amazement. I told him we can always wash our hands after planting, and with that he began digging. Damion was so excited and pleased with his work, he couldn’t help but interrupt his dad’s conversation to show him his accomplishments. Mr. R joined in, and once we finished a row it was time for them to go. Mr. R thanked me, explaining that this was the first time he and Damion had smiled and laughed in quite some time. The family had been removed from their home the day before and had not settled into CPLC until late in the night. We both shared some tears, and I explained to him that this was his garden and he was welcome to come in at any time.
That was the moment it clicked for me; I realized that despite all the difficulties, the work we did mattered to the people we helped. After that encounter, I followed Mr. R and Damion’s case. They were transferred to the UMOM shelter, where Urban Farming Education has also planted a garden, and Mr. R entered the culinary training program and continued to work in the garden.
Our volunteers and staff work hard for UFE. We are driven by the knowledge that we are making an impact, and the special moments we witness are the exclamation marks to our work. Young children and adults bonding in a garden; a child’s nervous face turning to joy after eating broccoli fresh cut from the garden; a fifth-grade class begging their teacher for the opportunity to keep planting; hearing young, precious children exclaim, “this is the best day of my life!”
Since I first began working at UFE, we have welcomed new team members, worked on a cohesive business plan, and created a website that showcases our work. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we rapidly mobilized our resources and volunteers, creating a program to distribute food from farms and food banks directly to hundreds of hungry families. Despite the frenzied work hours and general exhaustion we have all experienced throughout this process, we have seen time and time again that we have a major role to play in our community. We invite you to join us by browsing our website, signing up to volunteer or making a donation to our Fresh Food Collab so we can continue to serve our mission of making fresh and healthy food accessible to all.