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.
Here at Freetown Farm, we just added a beautiful, brand-new entrance sign to our property! The colorful art piece was constructed by Hailyn, a freshman at Reservoir High School, who completed the project for her silver award scout project. Hailyn was only fourteen years old when she started the project. We are so proud of how far Freetown Farm has come in the year and a half since we began stewarding the land and having a beautiful sign at the front of the entrance helps to make it feel all the more grounded.
Interview with Hailyn Lai by Shoshi Hornum
January 11, 2021
What led you to Freetown Farm?
I did a volunteer project here, making wayfinding signs. My mom actually got lost a few times at the beginning, and noticed that there wasn’t a sign for the farm. She brought up the idea, and I talked to Veronica and Chiara, which is how this all unfolded!
Is art a big part of your life?
I love to paint. Art has been something I’ve done for a very long time! I used to take art classes outside of school, now it is more inside of school, but I used to take classes once a week to learn how to paint with different techniques. I am also really interested in calligraphy, I do that a lot in my free time. I incorporated that into the sign as well. In the future, I plan on continuing to paint and practice calligraphy in my free time, mainly as a hobby.
What was your experience in doing this project as a part of scouts?
I did the project for my silver award. There are different time requirements for each level, and for this level, I spent roughly seventy-five hours working on the sign.
Tell us a little about the project and any challenges that may have come up.
The biggest challenge was being in a time-crunch, and I got most of it done before January 1st. At the beginning, we had a bunch of meetings, and a tour of the farm, so that is where my inspiration came from. After that, it was easy to come up with the design. Artistic elements, such as the color choices and the plant and animal illustrations, were inspired by and pulled from the farm stand mural, which was beautifully done by another Girl Scout, Elise Varoli. We wanted there to be a consistently bright and inviting look and feel to the features that welcome people to Freetown Farm.
What was the most fun part of the project?
I was able to spend time painting! I also got to work with Livia, an art intern at CEI, and one of my middle school friends, who also helped me paint parts of the sign.
What does community mean to you?
I really wanted the sign to represent the idea of community, and to help Freetown Farm feel like more of a home. I think of community as a group of people that want to achieve the same goal and want to make at least one aspect of life a little bit better.
What inspires and motivates you?
When I’m older, I am interested in pursuing a career in the medical field, since the life sciences are one of my biggest interests. Going to medical school is a big goal of mine, so doing well in school is important to me. I am also very much inspired by my parents, as they have overcome a lot in their lives.
What are your top three values?
Honesty, peace/justice, and determination.
What is your relationship with the environment/nature?
At school, we do a bunch of environmental-orientated projects, like watershed restoration. We also have a garden in our backyard that we work on, and my family and I go camping occasionally!
Anything else to share?
I am really glad to have had the opportunity to make a sign for Freetown Farm. My main goal was to help the community feel more like home.
Thank you so much to Hailyn for the incredible sign! We are so grateful for all of Hailyn’s hard work and are excited to announce that she will be joining our new cohort of 2021 CEI interns. We hope you get a chance to volunteer with us soon and check out our new, beautiful sign. Be well and stay safe.