By Lindsay Kreisher
Director, Roots & Wings Learning Community
I remember being outdoors as a child. I remember the freedom, the smells, the simple thrill of seeing wild animals going about their day. Outside was the best part of any day. My Dad has always been an "outdoor kinda guy", but not in the sense of hiking or camping. When I was a child, he could always be found outside watering the plants, taking a roam around our yard. Still today, he enjoys this time out there, observing. I hold dear memories of him coming inside to invite me outside to join him in observing a deer, an owl, or even scoping out an eagle in the higher up trees. Binoculars were always handy in my house, as was the excitement of what could be seen on the other side of them. We had wild raspberries growing along the trees in our front yard, and I remember my Dad bringing them inside in handfuls to me to munch on! Sometimes he'd take me to the beach side where brambles of them grew in plenty. The best part was that we'd nibble on them as we picked - it was pure, in the moment, joy of being outdoors.
The school district I grew up in had access to endless resources and banded together to create a learning environment that taught the whole child. In doing so, our middle school erected a full working mini-farm, greenhouse and garden space on the property. The farm boasted chickens, rabbits, ducks/geese, goats, sheep and a wild boar (he was housed in the way back where you couldn't go unless a teacher took you there). The set up at Albert G. Prodell Middle School was one that was not found in most public schools. It was incredible. While the garden (complete with a compost heap), greenhouse and animals served as science enrichment at the middle school, the elementary "Farm Program" born from it, was one children looked forward to all year. During the summer, children K-5 could sign up for the Farm Program, which was a week long program designed to teach children about the farm, animal stewardship, responsibility, compassion, science, old world skills etc. As a result, hundreds of children fell in love with animals and nature. I was one of them.
Fast forward many years later as I welcomed my daughter into the world. When she was old enough to head off to kindergarten, I hesitated. Having a background in education and child development, I knew that being in a classroom all day would not be ideal for her. Her natural curiosity, love of the outdoors, and strong will were valuable pieces of her personality that I wanted to support. I met Chiara in 2018, after having homeschooled my kiddo for three years. I had been searching for a program that was anywhere close to what I had growing up. It turns out that it didn't exist yet where we stood, but there came a wonderful opportunity to build it together. In the first year of CEI's Roots and Wings Learning Community program, Chiara shared her vision of purchasing what is now known as Freetown Farm. The experience of having worked alongside her in building an educational program that I was proud to offer to my daughter has been a gift. In less than two years, the farm has become a wonderful place of common ground for connection, freedom, and purpose. It highlights the world in its natural form, and highlights mindful cultivation and creativity. It has served as an educational hub for children, teens and adults alike. I've been honored to witness children falling in love with nature at the farm and it is evident that the memories they are creating will stay with them forever. For me, it is nothing short of magical when you step foot on the Freetown Farm property - the land speaks. Bringing people of many walks of life together, in goodness and love, for the earth.
How did you get involved with CEI? I found CEI in the summer of 2020 as I was looking for an organization with which to do my Social Justice Internship. A Social Justice Internship is a required part of my formation process as I seek to become an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. These internships are traditionally working in soup kitchens and such, but they were not accepting interns last summer due to the pandemic. So, I was thrilled to find CEI where the work was predominantly outside, allowing for social distancing, and I could focus on environmental justice, an increasingly important part of the overall social justice equation and one of my passions.
What has encouraged your love of the environment? From my childhood I spent a lot of time outdoors, especially fishing on and around the Chesapeake Bay. Over the years I became aware of the degradation of the water quality and its impact on wildlife. This led me to be a supporter and occasional volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Much later in life I became responsible for managing the buildings and grounds at the Claggett Center, which included 168 acres of land and a mile of shoreline on the Monocacy River. This required me to take an active role in caring for this beautiful property. Adding these experiences with my own love of hiking and camping, looking after nature kind of comes natural. Today's climate crisis makes this work all the more urgent.
What has been your most enjoyable experience with CEI / at Freetown Farm? Without a doubt, my favorite experience was working with the volunteers at Freetown Farm to complete important projects, such as clearing the area for the new greenhouse, putting up the fence around the Hope Works Garden and installing educational signs.
How has your time with CEI shaped your attitude towards the natural world? My love of nature preceded my coming to CEI. But what my CEI experience has done is provide me an incredible example of how much can be done with volunteers. Seeing the number of volunteers and their willingness to leap in to make things happen has been remarkable.
Any other thoughts/comments? The biggest take away from this internship is a new appreciation of what can be done with passion. Chiara's passion has infected so many people and has made everything possible. I still stand amazed at what has happened at Freetown Farm over the last 20 months. Wow!!
by Randall Amster
Growing up in a big city, the concept of nature had always seemed nebulous. This is probably because we didn’t have much of it around, spending most of our days on the streets and sidewalks of the city. If you interacted with nature at all on a significant scale it required a planned trip, usually someplace “upstate” if your family somehow could get there.
As I moved beyond these confines later in life, I intentionally sought out more immersive experiences in the wilderness. I saw nature as a refuge, a space set apart from the struggles of everyday life, someplace remote and rugged. I made it part of my focus to get there and stay as long as possible, and these experiences of “deep nature” transformed me.
Yet they were also limiting, existing in relative isolation and still casting nature as somewhere else, far away. Maybe that should have been enough, having an upwardly mobile city life coupled with intermittent doses of access to deeper nature experiences. But it wasn’t, and in many ways it was precisely this stark divide that sparked a change.
From that point, I sought places where you could live and work in nature. These scenarios are hard to find, yet in flickering moments it felt like I had. It worked for a while, yet still felt like just a better version of nature-as-refuge, set apart. It was missing a critical aspect, something integrative and connective of people and place. It was missing community.
This is what many of the early nature writers had gotten wrong, taking me years to fully grasp: if nature is a place to “find yourself,” it only works if we find others as well. In a world that atomizes individuals and antagonizes groups, while turning nature into a commodity, the antidote we need can be cultivated by our shared connection to, with, and through the environment.
As it turns out, this holistic sense of connection can be found everywhere, if we look closely. It’s in the community garden in an urban food desert, a neighborhood beautification project, backyard and schoolyard gardens, community-supported agriculture systems, watershed restoration initiatives, green energy networks, environmental justice movements, outdoor education programs, and much more.
Integrating community and ecology isn’t just a way for green-conscious advocates to network -- it’s a survival strategy for us all. We don’t get community or ecology without cultivating both. The crises at hand (from COVID to climate) can’t be borne in isolation but must be addressed collectively. As an old folk saying I once read offers: “If you dream alone, it’s just a dream; if you dream together, it’s reality.”
The dream of a just and sustainable world can, and must, become our collective reality. Helping to facilitate this essential transition, the Community Ecology Institute is a place where the community can serve and be served, where volunteers of every sort work together to manifest a vision, where people help restore nature and are restored by it in the process.
Being at the CEI gives us a glimpse of what it might be like if we got our living together. It isn’t magic (at least, not entirely!); it’s hard work. In 2020 I helped to build fences, remove decaying structures, move logs for a mushroom garden, worked in the gardens and woods, and lent a hand to an assortment of other projects that were underway when I arrived at Freetown Farm. Waves of volunteers and visitors ebb and flow throughout the days, with many hands making lighter work and producing a bounty that is shared by all. And it’s not set apart in some faraway place: it’s actually right in the middle of things, where nature always should be.
I invite you to help support this effort to grow sustainable community, and dare to dream together in the process!
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.
Animal agriculture accounts for roughly 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It comprises a whopping 44% of all anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions, which is the most potent greenhouse gas. Prominent researchers and scientists describe eating a plant-based diet as one of the most crucial contributions people can make to reducing global warming. In addition to significantly contributing to the degradation of the environment, animal agriculture is also the largest contributor to global water pollution and drives global deforestation.
Moreover, about ⅓ of biodiversity loss to date, links back to animal agriculture. Despite repeated evidence of the terrible impacts of animal agriculture, only 50% of adults in the U.S. have made an effort to reduce their animal product consumption. If each one of us cuts back on our animal product consumption by 10%, 1 billion animals will live to see another day and the yearly impacts on the environment would be greatly decreased. Given this statistic, it is essential for people to continue striving to reduce their meat and dairy consumption! Luckily, Columbia and its surrounding areas have some great vegan options to try out!
Great Sage, a fully vegan restaurant in Clarksville, is home to delicious organic and sustainable dishes, including macaroni and cheese, nachos, burgers, and sweets! PLNT Burger, housed inside the Columbia Whole Foods, is also a fully vegan restaurant, with sausages and a variety of burgers. Also located in Clarksville, Koshary by Misteka, serves vegan authentic Egyptian and Mediterranean food, including falafel and kabobs.
In addition to the local, fully vegan restaurants, several restaurants have delicious vegan options! In Elkridge, Silver Diner has a vegan option for everyone, having everything from vegan pancakes and Just Egg benedict, to the Beyond Burger and mushroom piccata. If you’re looking for vegan Italian options, Aida Bistro has you covered, with risotto and pastas! Bibibop and MOD Pizza also have several vegan options, including dairy-free cheese, tofu, and tons of veggies!
Finally, if you are in search of a quick meal, try a vegan fast-food option! Taco Bell has a black bean crunchwrap supreme that can easily be ordered without the cheese and sour cream. Burger King features the Impossible whopper, a plant-based burger. At Subway, pile on the veggies or order a Beyond Meatball marinara. In addition to having vegan hash browns, Dunkin Donuts also has a Beyond breakfast sausage! Panda Express has several options, including eggplant tofu and veggies spring rolls. Lastly, Chipotle’s build your own style provides burrito options including a plant based protein (sofritas), numerous veggies, and guacamole!
In addition to eating out, bring plant-based living into your home! Try starting a vegetable garden in your yard. It will enable you to have some wonderful fresh vegetables, in addition to encouraging you to rely on a more sustainable alternative to meat. Here at Freetown Farm, we provide people with hands-on experiences in learning how to grow and harvest food. If you are interested, it is an incredible opportunity to lessen your impact on the environment! Use your fresh fruits and veggies to make some exciting new food! A quick Google search will present you with countless vegan recipes to experiment with. Eating more fruits and vegetables at home over meat and dairy products also contributes to a healthier lifestyle!
With all of the incredible vegan restaurants and vegan options in the area, please take the initiative, and do your part in preventing animal cruelty and reducing your contribution to global warming. Even if one person cuts their animal product intake, it has a profound impact on both the animals and the environment.
Author: Shoshi Hornum, CEI Intern
New York Times
The Humane Society
Author: Shoshi Hornum (CEI Intern)
This month is marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which among other things, advocates for sustainable living practices. It is imperative that people consider sustainability in everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. There is a lot to consider in cultivating a sustainable lifestyle, so here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
Sustainable fashion tips:
Sustainable eating tips:
General sustainable life tips:
Sustainability at CEI:
Green America: Green Living
UN Food and Agriculture Organization
The New York Times
CEI is committed to understanding and sharing the social and ecological history of the land in which we are rooted. Into the 1600s, the land that is now called the United States was home to a great diversity of flourishing indigenous cultures, estimated to be comprised of 100 million people. In Howard County, we are primarily on the traditional land of both the Algonquin and Iroquois. The Piscataway tribe of the Algonquin and the Susquehannock tribe of the Iroquois both have particularly long and rich history in this area. In 1634 the colonization of tribal lands was initiated by Maryland’s first colonial governor and conflict began to rise as colonists continued to encroach on tribal lands. In 1652, the Susquehannock tribe signed a peace treaty with Maryland, giving up their provenance over the territory that is now Howard County and effectively ending their presence in Maryland. In 1966, a treaty was established to create a Piscataway reservation. This was followed by subsequent treaties, all of which would be broken in the coming years, resulting in the local loss of native homelands. For hundred of years now Native communities across the Americas have demonstrated resilience and resistance in the face of violent efforts to separate them from their land, culture, and each other. They remain at the forefront of movements to protect the Earth and the life it sustains. Today, Piscataway people still reside in many Maryland counties. According to the most recent census data, there are approximately 40,000 Native Americans in Maryland and 1,300 living in Howard County.
This year, Howard County became one of more than 140 state and local governments across the country to make the switch to Indigenous Peoples Day from Columbus Day. As we all were taught in primary school, Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas on October 12, 1492, a date that was honored with a federal holiday 83 years ago. In recent decades, Native Americans and other groups have justly protested the celebration of an event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade and the deaths of millions from murder and disease. It is long past time be honest about the true history of this country and the Native peoples that have always called this land home. This acknowledgment is a necessary step toward honoring Native communities and enacting the much larger project of decolonization and reconciliation.
CEI is following the guidance of the 'Honor Native Lands Guide' created by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture in partnership with Native allies and organizations. The guide explains that the practice of land acknowledgement is important because it:
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!
By Patrick Boddicker
CEI is thrilled to be partnering with Howard County’s Office of Community Sustainability, Power 52, and the Chesapeake Conservation Corps program of the Chesapeake Bay Trust on an innovative project demonstrating agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics is the dual use of land for agricultural purposes and solar energy generation. Project partners will construct raised garden beds and install solar panels above the beds.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, wouldn’t the solar panels shade the plants making them not grow? The answer is no, and in fact installing solar panels above plants can be beneficial to the plants and the panels. When solar panels are above plants in close proximity, a microclimate is created that affects both panels and plants. Shading of the plants causes less water loss due to evaporation, which makes the plants use water more efficiently allowing them to grow in hotter, drier conditions. The evaporation that does occur helps to cool down the panels which in turn makes them more efficient at converting solar energy into electricity.
The demonstration plot at CEI's Freetown Farm will serve as an example that other community gardens and home gardens can replicate. The County hopes to also expand the practice of agrivoltaics to larger farms after CEI helps to demonstrate its viability. In an ever changing climate we need to do our best to combat the causes of climate change, preserve our natural environment, and increase resiliency in a warming world. Agrivoltaics in Howard County will produce clean renewable energy and locally grown foods with little impact on the environment.