By Annette Varoli
When you drive down Harriet Tubman Lane in Columbia, Maryland and approach the entrance to Freetown Farm, set back a few yards from the road, you’ll see a cheery and bright-colored farm stand welcoming you to the property, which is home to the Community Ecology Institute (CEI).
However, just over a year ago, you would have been greeted by a dilapidated farm stand filled with garbage cans. Not exactly what Chiara D’Amore, the founder and Executive Director of CEI, had envisioned for a first impression when the farm was purchased. Determined to transform the farm into a “living classroom” to foster healthy connections between people and nature, she set out to get help for the farm stand and other projects on the farm. She planned on reaching out to local scouting groups to volunteer for the various projects but asked me if my family would consider restoring the farm stand, likely because my husband and I both have architecture degrees.
Around the same time, my daughter Elise Varoli, was looking for ideas for her Girl Scout Silver Award project. She wanted to use her creativity to help her community with one of the issues she cared about-- the environment, racial justice, hunger/poverty or mental health. CEI actually helps with all these issues so the timing couldn’t have been better and we all agreed to take on the project. Elise would restore the farm stand and create a mural design for her project, and my husband and I would provide support for the restoration part that required adult supervision and expertise.
Originally, the scope of the project was only to replace one cracked post, add a few shelves and cabinets, and paint the entire farm stand including the mural. Unfortunately, we discovered that much of the stand couldn’t be salvaged due to termite damage, aging and some parts were structurally unsound since it was cobbled together with a variety of materials. Knowing that it was going to cost more than originally anticipated, Elise decided to hone in on organizing volunteers and materials for the entire restoration (Phase 1) and then mainly focusing on designing, finding funding for and painting the mural (Phase 2).
The farm stand was to serve as a visitor/volunteer check-in space, as well as a place to sell produce. The goal was to create a mural that is eye-catching from the street, inviting and speaks to CEI’s mission. Although Elise is naturally creative and artistic, the stakes were higher than a normal art project. This time she had the added pressure of knowing that all eyes would be on her artwork. She also had a hard time wrapping her head around translating her drawings on paper to the larger scale of the farm stand. That’s where my husband and I came in for support, walking her through the design process that we had learned in college. Initially, Elise brought us several fully colored drawings of her design ideas without having worked out an overall cohesive theme that included all sides of the farm stand. We told her to quickly brainstorm various big ideas using rough pencil sketches, instead of approaching her design as a fully finished art product. This process led her to the idea that she would then further develop in detail.
Her idea incorporated sun rays, various pollinators and pollinator flowers. She also wanted to incorporate the name of the farm but it hadn’t been decided yet. Thankfully, the property was officially named Freetown Farm just in time for her to incorporate it into the design. She also made a last minute change to her pollinator flowers when she found out that Bee Balm became the official pollinator plant of Howard County.
The design represented much of what CEI is about- the growth of food, restoring the environment and being a beacon of hope in strengthening our connection to nature and our community.
Our family experienced CEI’s mission in action as the farm stand became a labor of love for us. We got to bond with each other outdoors doing something creative, which certainly helped with our mental health during the isolation of Covid. We were given free okra, kale and carrots from the farm crew. We worked alongside friends and strangers that volunteered to help. We met members of other non-profits doing good work on the farm and out in the world that we might not otherwise have met: The Indian Origin Network, NAACP, Howard Ecoworks, HopeWorks, Harvest United, Columbia Community Care, Transition HoCo and VolunTeens.
The more we painted the mural, the more it invited curiosity and people from all walks of life came to talk to us and watch as we worked. A father and his daughter, a grandmother and her grandchild, a family that just moved into the neighborhood, another girl scout planning her Silver Award project. There was a student unable to return to college due to Covid who subsequently came to buy produce at the farm stand and later signed up as a volunteer. We witnessed the community connections strengthen right before our eyes.
On our last day doing final touch-up painting, there were bees and monarch butterflies and even a hummingbird buzzing around us as if to thank us for putting them and their important purpose into the spotlight.
155 hours, 80+ sketches, blood, sweat and many bug bites later, the farm stand was transformed into a symbol of hope during a difficult time in our history. On dark days, the sun always shines at Freetown Farm where everyday people are coming together to make the world a better place!
Here’s a link to a video of our journey with the farm stand!