Chris: Thanks for talking to us today about Green Bridge. It’s always great for our supporters to know more about those who contribute their time and talents with us. Could you share some of your background in farming and gardening and how you got interested in it?
Melissa: I started gardening—or being interested in gardening—when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree. I decided then that I would do an agriculture extension program, and I did a minor in horticulture, so that was the area that I decided that I wanted to go into, and I fell in love with it. And then I continued my education, and went on to get a master’s degree in agriculture education, and I knew then that I really enjoyed teaching people about gardening, teaching people about plants, and at the time I thought that I was going to be a high school teacher - but I wanted something different, so while my kids were young I started volunteering, and started a school garden at their school, and it just kept going from there.
I ended up getting a job and started a community garden, and I just fell in love with teaching people how to garden, explaining the process of growing your own food, and sharing the importance of knowing where our food comes from and how to grow our own food, educating people about farming-small-scale and large-scale farming. That’s how it all started for me!
Chris: How did you hear about Green Bridge Growers and what attracted you to Green Bridge?
Melissa: Originally, I found out about Green Bridge when I moved here about 4 ½ years ago. My sister let me know that she saw something on Facebook about Green Bridge Growers, and I was looking for a place to start volunteering. Since I was new to the area, I hadn’t really had a chance to really know what was going on in this area with gardening and farming. So when my sister told me about that, I was interested, and I looked on Facebook, and I was able to get Jan’s information and contact her and ask her if she needed a volunteer, how I could help, how I could start volunteering. And that’s kind of how we got our start I have been volunteering now for 4 ½ years.
Melissa: I was living in New Jersey and I’d just finished my Master Gardener program there, and my instructor, was very into horticulture therapy, which I had never heard of until I was in that class. And so I started looking into becoming a horticulture therapist, but then we decided to move here, and I couldn’t find any programs here. So I was given a book called Gardening with Children with Disabilities. And I read that book, and I just knew that was what I wanted to do in some way, shape, or form. I wanted to basically do horticulture therapy without the title of horticulture therapy. My nephew has autism, and that kind of also sparked me. I wanted to help in any way that I could—create some sort of a foundation for him to be able to do something in that field if he chose to. So then when I found Jan, it was just the perfect fit. I knew I wanted to do horticulture or gardening, and then she was already doing that type of work with people with disabilities, so I knew that that was the fit for me, and being at Green Bridge Growers was going to be where I wanted to be.
Chris: What gives you the greatest satisfaction in your involvement with Green Bridge Growers?
Melissa: Probably the two things that stick out to me the most are being able to just work with the group of people that I have been able to work with. I thoroughly enjoy working with the Day Program at Hannah & Friends, and I really enjoy being able to work with you and Matt and Aja. The relationships that we’re able to form—they mean a lot to me, and that’s one of the big reasons that I’m involved - the satisfaction that I have is to see the joy in everybody that I get to work with and how much they enjoy gardening. The other aspect is, I see Green Bridge Growers as such a wonderful space, and I wanted to be involved from the ground level of a business that will create such wonderful opportunities for people in the future, and be able to educate not only people with disabilities, but people without disabilities about food production and farming and where our food comes from. So that’s truly where I draw my satisfaction, is just being around the people that I get to work with, and being able to spread the education about farming.
Chris: What are your hopes for our work in the future?
Melissa: Well, I see Green Bridge Growers really as a farm model, hopefully for others to look at, and it has a twofold purpose: we want to help create jobs to address one problem, which is unemployment in adults with autism, plus we also want to create an opportunity for local foods to be grown here in the area and then used locally. So my hopes are that other people can look at Green Bridge Growers as a model and be able to implement that type of scenario in other cities across the country, and by doing so, we can impact that unemployment rate for autistic adults, and we can also help impact the fact that—you don’t have to travel as far—you don’t have to have your food necessarily come in from as far, you can have locally grown food in any area. So being a part of this model of farming and creating jobs, I hope that it can be spread across the country, and people will be able to look at it and model their own business after Green Bridge Growers.
Chris: What’s your favorite crop to grow and eat? And do you have any special recipes that you enjoy that use this vegetable?
Melissa: My favorite thing to grow is seedless cucumbers. I love a fresh cucumber, so that is my favorite thing to grow in the summer. And it’s my favorite thing to eat. It’s not really a specific recipe, but one of my favorite things to do is just chop up a cucumber, some tomatoes, and some feta cheese in the summertime and just eat a little salad like that. It makes me think of summer when I eat it, and it makes me think of warm weather. So it’s definitely my favorite vegetable to grow!