By Veronica Adler
CEI's Community Engagement Coordinator
I vividly remember the day a friend told me about a fundraiser she saw on Facebook to buy a farm behind Atholton High School. I recall being confused, as I had gone to Atholton for four years and lived two minutes away from Harriet Tubman Lane most of my life but had never heard of a farm existing there. The note my friend sent said, "The person organizing the fundraiser is Chiara D'Amore, the Executive Director of The Community Ecology Institute. It looks like she's had a long-time dream of buying a farm and she's running the show on her own. You should check it out and see what she's up to."
I had no idea just how much those words were going to change my life. From the first day I went out to the farm and met Chiara, I fell in love with everything about it. She gave me a tour of the property, one that seemed to be as much of a reflex to her as breathing, and I remember my jaw being on the ground the entire time. I am pretty sure the only word I was able to muster during the tour was "wow." All I had to go off of were the descriptions Chiara gave me of each area we walked past. Her vision for the property was stunning, but at the time the farm was mostly overgrown with weeds. Lacking color and structure. Lacking the gorgeous gardens, murals, paths, and signs of life and community that are now everywhere at the farm. It always moves me when I give tours now to point out all the areas that were once just ideas and have since come to life.
Chiara's vision for the space was unlike anything I had ever heard, but it was everything I had dreamed of someday creating. Almost two years later, I cannot believe how far we have come and how lucky and honored I am to use the word "we" when talking about CEI's accomplishments. I have learned more about life, community, work, and outreach than I could ever learn in a class. I have met countless people with utterly fascinating stories and skills. I have found a home away from home that has completely renewed my hope in people and the world—and all of this is putting it lightly. I wish I could truly put into words just how much this community and organization mean to me and so many of those around me.
As CEI's Community Engagement Coordinator (and second staff person), I am now leading our team of 11 incredible high school interns and coordinating the 1,000+ people that have volunteered at the farm. It has been amazing to see how people have been drawn to the farm through their own connections and shared stories in exponentially increasing numbers. CEI is more than a nonprofit, it is more than an organization. It is the home of beautiful initiatives, which include Freetown Farm, created by people who care about each other, nature, and their communities. It is a unique collection of learners, educators, activists, leaders, and change-makers who are taking community to a new level. I think back to the words that sparked my story with CEI and how they have evolved into what others share now. I cannot wait for all the new stories they will spark.