WCW: Chiara, Erica, and Veronica of CEI at Freetown Farm

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Pictured (from left to right): Erica Jones, Chiara D'Amore, and Veronica Adler

Meet the leadership team of the Community Ecology Institute (CEI) at Freetown Farm! CEI is a nonprofit located in Columbia, MD, focused on connection to nature, civic ecology, community health, and climate action. Read on to learn how CEI is cultivating communities where people and nature thrive together!

Q: The Community Ecology Institute (CEI) is your brainchild-- what inspired you to create this organization?

A: ​I have known that my vocation was connected to taking care of the natural environment since I was young. I grew up free and playing outside, and I have a deep connection to and love for nature that grew into studying environmental issues and sciences in undergrad and for my masters, and then working as an environmental consultant for over a dozen years. Becoming a mother was a transformative experience for me and it was clear that I wanted to weave a path where my vocation and my motherhood weren't in competition with one another - a whole life that allowed me to feel deeply connected with my family, my passions, my community, and the environment I was working so hard to protect. My answer to this longing was to go back to school for my doctorate degree in sustainability education. That whole journey was both serendipitous and profoundly challenging (my son was one when I started and my daughter was born half way through, and I was still working full time). But my intuition was right and getting that degree opened up a whole new path for me. My research was focused on the effects of family time spent in nature and I created a program called Columbia Families in Nature to study what happened when families spent regular time together having fun outside. I had no guarantee that anyone would show up, but they did and the program kept growing, and when I graduated I wanted it to continue and be the flagship program of a non-profit that expanded the social and ecological benefits of connection with nature. So the Community Ecology Institute was born in January 2016 with a mission to cultivate communities where people and nature thrive together, and in 2019 we became the grateful stewards of what is now known as Freetown Farm. Bringing this organization into being is very much like a whole additional motherhood journey for me. :)

Q: You are both a visual artist and a Master Gardener; how does CEI allow you to wed these two parts of your identity and skill set?

A: ​This question also brings me back to my childhood. I come from a family of artists, especially on my mother's side, and I would spend hours drawing and painting during my childhood. But when I was 13 my maternal grandmother, an incredible portrait artist and muralist died early because she didn't have health insurance, and I made a vow that I would have a "real job" that would allow me to have security that she and other artistic women in my family didn't have. I put art aside and focused on science and it wasn't until late 2016 that I picked art back up in a new way. That was a tough time in my life and I started picking up interesting and beautiful things I found in nature while I was leading CFIN events or when I was finding solace outside and I’d make ephemeral art out of whatever I found. I'd photograph the art pieces and then leave them behind with the hope that someone may come across them and have a sweet surprise before everything scattered back into nature. I will often have the photographs printed on canvas and then add acrylic paint to accentuate features of the print, so it's a fun, spontaneous, mixed media experience that also is a much needed creative outlet. As far as the master gardener qualification goes, that is a long story too, but in short I left high school early and started taking classes at the local community college and it was one of the first, best adult decisions I made. One of the independent studies classes I took at that time (twenty years ago!) was my Master Gardener training. I left for college shortly thereafter and for the next decade I moved almost yearly and often didn't have a place to garden, but I always grew SOMETHING. CEI becoming the steward of Freetown Farm has basically given me a 6.4 acre green and growing canvas on which to create literal and figurative art. I am still forging my own trail towards a "whole life" and CEI and Freetown Farm are the canvas on which I am able to bring my different layers and facets together.

Q: One exciting project you have in development is the Maker Space. What types of events and opportunities will the Maker Space have to offer?

A: ​In the very center of Freetown Farm there is an area that was formerly a landscape contractor’s yard. For the first year that CEI owned the farm the area was rented to the individual that had been using it for that purpose for many years - CEI gained access to the space in July of this year. A dedicated team of volunteers have been working to transform the area into a “lost arts” Maker Space where people can learn skills such as papermaking, woodworking, pottery, repair, etc. This effort is led by our Transition Howard County program team and is a key focal area for our team of ten high school interns this fall. The space came with three quonset huts in various states of disrepair and an older trailer. The trailer is being turned into a tool lending library and two of the huts are being restored into a Repair Cafe and woodworking shop. We envision a wide variety of intergenerational events and opportunities in the Maker Space as soon as COVID allows for in-person programming. For example, one of our Maker Space leads is a talented woodworker who just celebrated his 70th birthday and we are excited for him to share his knowledge on creating beautiful and functional projects out of wood with youth in our community.

Q: On top of teaching community members sustainable practices and skills that build self-efficacy, CEI is so generous as to donate portions of their crop to other organizations in the community! What are some ways that CEI has given back, using food grown at Freetown Farm?

A: ​This is one of the best parts of what is emerging at Freetown Farm! It has truly become a unique space of common ground for the community with several organizations stewarding gardening areas and sharing what they grow with their members. For example, the Howard County branch of the NAACP has been a part of stewarding Freetown Farm since the beginning of the 2020 growing season. Members of the NAACP community were invited to participate in the food growing process in this garden, from creating the beds, to planting the seeds, watering and weeding and harvesting. Crops grown include, kale, chard, okra, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and herbs. HopeWorks of Howard County also has a garden plot at the farm. Their mission is to support and advocate for people affected by sexual and intimate partner violence and to engage the community in creating the change required for violence prevention. We share the belief that youth have the passion and power to effect change if given the tools to do so, and have formed a partnership called the “Our Earth” program that provides an opportunity to learn about safe space, civic ecology, community health and environmental injustices that disproportionately affect those who are marginalized. HopeWorks Director Vanita Leatherwood remarks, “Justice work at its core is about trying to unravel complex systems that support inequities. So, while violence prevention and environmental justice may on the surface seem unrelated; the work is actually similar – we have to change behaviors.” Thus far, their garden at Freetown Farm contains about 120 native, pollinator supporting plants in a beautiful setting. Then there is our market garden, which is one of our largest growing areas and where most of our food was grown for sale at the farm stand and to the Roving Radish program (which provides farm-based meal kits for low and moderate income families) and for donation to Columbia Community Care, a mutual aid organization that started this spring to support those hardest hit by COVID. Two emerging farmers, Brad and Talia, managed the crops in this area and cultivated beautiful crops, including carrots, turnips, salad mix, cucumbers, squash, arugula, kale, green onions, green beans, heirloom and cherry tomatoes, okra, potatoes, garlic, and basil! We estimate that we were able to grow 5,000 pounds of food for the community from this and the other gardens in 2020!

Q: At the time of this interview, CEI is about to turn 5 years old, and you’ve been operating at Freetown Farm for just over 5 months. What have been your greatest challenges and triumphs so far in the organization’s development?

A:​ I am working on our 2020 annual report right now and there are so many successes to share for this year even though it has been deeply different than what we expected due to COVID. In addition to growing food for our community we have opened the farm up for volunteers to have an outdoor place where they feel safe and welcome during the pandemic, and where they make a difference for the community while experiencing the mental and physical health benefits of meaningful time spent in nature. As far as challenges go, the transition from a VERY small, volunteer-only non-profit (2016-2018) to an organization that took a huge leap by purchasing the farm to protect it from housing development has required a tremendous amount of time and careful management. The past two years have been a LOT personally and organizationally. CEI will be starting a strategic planning process in early 2021 to ensure that we are growing sustainably and mindfully over the long term.

Q: What upcoming projects are you most excited about? What should the community stay tuned for?

A: ​Our Climate Victory Garden is one of the many special spots at Freetown Farm. This garden has been tended by members of the Howard County Teen Interfaith Initiative, numerous interns and volunteers and is supported by a County innovation grant for our Climate of Hope program. We have applied for several additional grants to help us support people in transforming lawns throughout our community into CVGs in 2021 and beyond! Food not lawns! You can read on to learn more about CVG's in Erica's section. :)

Q: What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs reading this?

A: ​I am about twenty years into the post college, career development phase of my life. While I have had the consistent thread of environmental protection throughout, the way I initially approached that work was very A-type, corporate, linear, etc. I got the good degrees and the good job that gave me the good benefits, and I have no regrets about that and what I learned along the way. But one of the deepest and truest things I learned was to LISTEN to myself. About halfway through these two decades I came to a place where I realized how profoundly disconnected I felt from my passions and my purpose and my joy and my well-being. In a moment of soul searching I wrote something of a manifesto for what I wanted my life to look and feel like, which was nothing like it was with my long commute, 60 hour work weeks in a high rise, etc. I forgot about that document, but several years into CEI's existence I came across it again and was amazed by how much of my dream had come true by trusting my heart, taking some leaps of faith, and reaching other people with a similar vision to work in collaboration. So stay true to yourself, realize there is something good to leverage from just about any experience (no regrets!), and build relationships and connections. An African proverb says "If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together," and I have found this to be very true.

Q: What else would you like us to know?

A:​ ​Goodness, for those reading this thank you for sharing your time with me. CEI is just one of the hats that I wear and if you are curious about the other ones you can check out my personal website at I always enjoy hearing from people that resonate with my journey in some way. Be well!

Q: Until coming to Freetown Farm, we had never met a Master Gardener! What does your day-to-day look like, and what led you to this path?

A: Master Gardeners are volunteer educators certified by the University of Maryland Extension. I serve as the Program Coordinator for the Grow It, Eat It Program in Howard County and our mission is to educate the public on how to improve their health by growing their own food using sustainable gardening practices. We do this through lectures, public/virtual events and workshops, and through public school programs that typically run from March through November. I find an incredible amount of joy in teaching others how to grow food and cook food. Becoming a Master Gardener was the perfect way to give back to the community that I grew up in and that supported me. It feels wonderful to pass it forward : )

Q: As a Master Gardener, you have a lot of experience and expertise surrounding sustainability practices. These practices are beautifully exemplified in CEI’s Climate Victory Garden! Can you tell our readers about what that is and how it works?

A: Climate Victory Gardens are inspired by campaigns in the early 1900’s to grow food gardens to support the US and its allies during WW I and II. In this modern day, our war is on climate change and the campaign encourages the country to grow food gardens using methods that help the Earth heal and regenerate. When we grow a diversity of plants, stop using chemicals, and disturb the soil as little as possible, these practices create healthy soils. Healthy soils have the ability to sequester carbon and carbon sequestration is one of the proven solutions to reversing climate change. Our Climate Victory Garden at Freetown Farm is the 2nd to be certified in the state of Maryland by Green America and serves as our demonstration garden used to educate and inspire the community on how to take personal action and victory against the war on climate that they can see for themselves.

Q: The Howard County chapter of the NAACP has been tending a garden at Freetown Farm for the purpose of showing how food grows, and what it tastes like when it’s grown locally. Can you speak to the community’s response to this project, and some of the most important take-aways from the program?

A: We are thrilled to be in collaboration with the Howard County NAACP. Our missions align in educating on the value of locally grown food. This past growing season, their garden was booming with volunteers, many of whom had never gardened before and/or saw for the first time how foods they eat every day actually grow. Watching their members leave the farm with smiles on their faces and hands full of produce was priceless! I would then see them return again but with their friends! The NAACP has proven that, “Each one, teach one”, works!

Q: On our tour with you, you also showed us an area that will be used for a home farming program that teaches community members to grow food within the limitations of their living space. As apartment dwellers, we found this very exciting! What benefits have you seen from this program? How does it build self-efficacy among community members?

A: We are excited for our Growing Food In Small Spaces program launching in Summer 2021. I know, first hand, the challenges that can come from trying to grow food in a limited space. When I first started growing my own food I only had 60 sq. feet! I didn’t let that stop me though---I did a lot of research, kept an open mind and got creative! This program will support small space dwellers and teach them all they need to know to be successful in growing food, no matter what space limitations they may have. While it is true that you may not be able to grow everything, there is always something that you can and our program will teach you how.

Q: CEI has a similar micro farming program for youth aged 16-26. Why is it so important that this generation in particular learn these skills?

A: I’ll put it simply - it's not a matter of if our food systems break - but when. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we know what to do when the time comes. There is a quote I once read that put it best, “The future of a nation depends on how it feeds itself .'' It is more important than ever to equip our future generations with the knowledge and skill-set needed to grow food so that we can sustain ourselves and continue to thrive regardless of a compromised food supply. It is time to be at the beginning of our own food systems - not at the end.

Q: Sometimes, people are not able to grow food at home due to H.O.A. regulations. How is CEI working to resolve this issue in Howard County?

A: CEI is collaborating with the Master Gardener Grow It, Eat It program to install an edible landscape demonstration garden at Freetown Farm. The garden will show how edible plants can coexist with conventional ornamental plants within the residential landscape so homeowners can maximize the amount of food they can grow on their properties. We believe that growing food at home is not a privilege but a right, and it is our goal to open minds and conversations around this idea with local city/county legislators and HOA boards.

Q: Truly a family-friendly organization for all ages, CEI even has a garden tended by children! What are some ways that the children contribute to this garden?

A: The Pre-K to 5th grade aged children of CEI’s Roots & Wings program played an integral part in building our Children's Garden under the guidance of their teacher, who is a permaculture design educator. They established our perennial food forest that includes an orchard and berry patches, a willow dome, and a pond. They grew corn, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash flowers, garlic and various herbs. It is truly a sight to be seen!

Q: Do you ever find yourself using gardening for its expressive or therapeutic qualities? What would you recommend to others wanting to do the same?

A: Gardening is most definitely a form of art. Nature is full of beautiful resources to create art with, and artistic expressions of this can be found throughout our property. The therapeutic benefits of gardening are endless, though my favorites are access to the healthiest and most local food you can get (picked right outside your door), a deeper connection to nature, and reduced stress. My recommendation is to just try it and see what changes you notice in your own life as you explore the magical world of gardening.

Q: What else would you like us to know?

A: I often meet people who feel they don't have a green thumb because they tried to grow something and it died, so they gave up. Most often, this is the result of not knowing or providing what the plant needed in order to thrive. My advice is to try again, seek support from a trusted source (I know a place ;) ) and understand that gardening is a journey and to never, ever give up! To grow food is to grow life.

Q: Tell us a little about your role at CEI, and what led you there!

A: I started volunteering with CEI when Chiara was fundraising to buy Freetown Farm in the spring of 2019! From the first day I stepped foot on the property and met Chiara, I couldn’t stop coming back. She had such a clear and beautiful vision for what the farm would become that I wanted nothing more than to support the journey however I could. As a full time college student at UMD College Park, I found time on weekends and after classes to drive down to the farm, but was so disappointed that I couldn’t be there more frequently. When the pandemic shut everything down, I moved back to Columbia and naturally started spending my free time at the farm. Chiara and I started talking about my officially joining the team as a staff member and it fell into place naturally. Now, as CEI’s Community Engagement Coordinator, I’m responsible for coordinating volunteers, fundraising/community outreach efforts, and a team of 10 interns. I like to think of myself as Chiara’s right-hand woman!

Q: Your motto at CEI is “Cultivating Community;” can you tell us a little bit about the symbiosis that exists between CEI and the community groups that both utilize and care for the space?

A: The reason we’ve been such a thriving place is because our community is our organization. We are successful because our community wants us to be! We aim to connect people of all backgrounds and trades to nature and to each other, and I think we’ve done a fantastic job doing just that. So many relationships and partnerships bloom naturally from interactions at the farm, and it models what we think our entire community should look like. People coming together to care about each other and their shared environment.

Q: When we visited CEI, we saw at least half a dozen community groups working on different projects around the farm. How did you go about bringing these community members to CEI?

A: A lot of them came to us in a similar way that I did. Individuals interested in visiting the farm come out and then keep coming back, bringing more and more people with them every time! Most of our partnerships with community groups aren’t planned, they are created through spontaneous connections and relationships—which I think are the most beautiful kinds of connections. Everyone who engages with us does so because they truly want to, and it creates a wonderful and thriving community.

Q: There are a lot of spaces around Freetown Farm that encourage gathering, such as fire pits and picnic tables. How have these spaces helped to facilitate connection between community members? What kinds of relationships do you see forming between representatives of different community organizations?

A: Fire pits and picnic tables are where the real magic happens. There is a very humbling and grounding nature to the way that we interact with people at Freetown Farm. We are all genuinely passionate about revitalizing our community and the environment and I think it shows when you come out to the farm!

Even without COVID, people have become increasingly distant and formal with each other, so it’s awesome to see how excited people are to converse in spaces that feel so much more relaxed and open. Our gathering spaces were intentionally selected to be comfortable and encourage connections.

Most of our emerging community partnerships really bloomed in 2020, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been harder to form connections between different groups. When people come to the farm, we schedule groups to come at separate times. This has the opposite effect when it comes to creating relationships between different community organizations, but is ultimately what keeps our community safe. Before the pandemic, we always had several groups or individuals out at the same time working on different projects. Because of the welcoming and homey environment we’ve strived to create at the farm, people naturally gravitated towards others to connect. We still have that feeling, but it has definitely changed in 2020.

Q: We saw a lot of high school-aged volunteers on our visit to Freetown Farm; how do you maintain engagement with youth in the community? Do you find it more or less challenging than maintaining adult engagement?

A: I’m very grateful and proud to say that we haven’t struggled significantly with engagement. It’s a great problem to have—sometimes I feel we have more groups and volunteers interested in connecting with us than we have space for on the property.

Students have definitely been the backbone of the work we’ve done at the farm. It’s been a wonderful surprise to see how many young people want to spend time outdoors, getting their hands dirty and spending time with friends and new faces! Regarding student volunteers: I graduated from Atholton High School (which is across the street from us) in 2018 and was well connected with clubs and students that helped spread the word about what we were doing and how to get involved. A unique part of our organization is that almost all of us (staff, board members, interns) have lived in Howard County our whole lives and are HCPSS alumni! We are all deeply connected to this community because it is our community.

One major way we maintain engagement with youth in our community is by allowing them to explore the full width of their creativity. We encourage everyone to bring ideas and energy to our farm. Chiara has been a beacon of energy and creativity and it’s contagious! She gets people excited to help out and find a way to do what they love at our farm. Students, who are used to being told what to do and how to do it, have a unique opportunity to think outside of the box and engage what really interests them. We’ve had students with passions for painting, carpentry, soil science, pottery, gardening, engineering, writing, and so much more. Young people have been really drawn to us because they are able to contribute to their community in ways that are meaningful to them, that highlight their strengths, and that lets them practice leadership skills.

Q: Obviously, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges and complications for community organizations everywhere. How has CEI been coping with these challenges and fostering community while staying safe? Have you noticed any advantages?

A: It’s definitely been interesting to see the surge in people interested in coming out to volunteer in 2020. The pandemic has been devastating for a multitude of reasons, but one of the silver linings, in my opinion, is that people seem to value spending time outdoors more. We have a new volunteer management system that helps us keep track of who is on the property and when, and we keep group sizes small and spaced out with masks on at all times. We have been incredibly lucky to be able to continue doing the work we love safely due to being outdoors, but we miss having large groups of volunteers and community events!

Q: What else would you like us to know?

A: Freetown Farm has become a second home to so many people and it’s truly such a magical place. It is all because of the incredible force of nature that is our Executive Director, Chiara. She willed this place into existence because she saw that our community, our society, had a need for it and it is an honor to get to help bring her vision to life and work alongside her. This opportunity has been life changing to me, and I really encourage anyone who has the chance to get involved with us to do so, you won’t regret it!

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