June 25, 2013
Amanda Nagy
Photo credit: Courtesy of Mountain Garden Initiative

Hilary Neff ’13 has received $15,000 from Oberlin’s Creativity & Leadership (C&L) Fellowship fund to expand a school garden in southeastern Kentucky, an initiative she cofounded two years ago.

Neff, an environmental studies major who graduated in May, established the Mountain Garden Initiative with Rachel Manning, a rising senior. The program provides 150 fifth- and sixth-grade students in Harlan County, Kentucky, a safe space to learn about science, nature, and gardening in a hands-on, outdoor environment.

Neff and Manning first visited the region—which was once home to the largest coal camp in the world—during a community service trip led by Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS), a student organization at Oberlin. The area struggles with unemployment and brain drain, and increasing levels of mountain-top removal mining have damaged water supplies.

Gardening was once a common practice in the region, but community members have told Neff that gardens have disappeared for two reasons: Fast food is a more convenient alternative, and much of the land suited for gardening has been bought up by coal companies or the government to build housing projects.

After talking with residents, Neff and Manning brainstormed ways to increase food access in the area, and they applied for grants to start a community garden. They were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Dalai Lama Fellowship and additional support from Oberlin’s C&L fund to launch the garden in 2012. Manning, a 2013 Udall Scholar who is majoring in sociology and East Asian studies with a Chinese language concentration, continues to be a partner in the project. This year, Chris Gould, a junior biology major, has joined the effort and will help lead IYS trips during academic breaks.

The C&L Fellowship competition is open to graduating seniors and awards individuals or teams up to $30,000 to develop and launch a venture. The program selects ventures that are business, artistic, or social justice-oriented and that reflect a feasible strategy for financial and structural sustainability. In addition to funding, fellows benefit from mentoring from alumni and entrepreneurs in the field.

“Our overall goal is to increase the amount of affordable, fresh produce available in the area while also giving young people the skills they need to grow their own food,” says Neff, who is from Redondo Beach, California. “We hope our gardens and our curriculum will help young people gain a deeper appreciation for their environment, and encourage practical, healthful skills that this generation can use throughout their lives.”

Over the next year, Neff and Manning hope to increase their reach from fifth- and sixth-grade students to more than 1,000 students of all ages throughout Harlan County. Starting in August, Neff will spend a year living in Harlan County. She will work on expanding the size of the current garden at Cumberland Elementary School to make it available to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. She also hopes to start a garden at the local high school. All three partners will spend time there this summer.

Neff is also working to develop a sustainable financial and educational model that may include employing local high school students to teach younger children in the garden. Oberlin students will maintain a partnership and continue to visit, but Neff and Manning believe the garden will be most successful if the community has total ownership of the project.

“We’ve spent the past year and half building trust in the community, and we’re looking forward to expanding our work there,” Neff says. “We believe every opportunity to involve children in a garden makes a difference.”

Neff says she is fortunate to pursue a project that she helped build from the ground up, rather than entering a job market that is unpredictable and struggling, or working for a nonprofit that is not her own. And she is already realizing the value of mentorship and advising support. The C&L program connected her with Jeff Hanson ’80, founder and president of Hanson Advisors Corp. Hanson has more than 25 years of management consulting, professional service, and institutional asset management operating experience, and this year he served as a mentor/panelist for the C&L LaunchU pitch competition.

“Not only did Jeff offer financial support after hearing our pitch for Mountain Garden Initiative, but he also invited me to a dinner full of Oberlin alumni in New York City a few days after graduation,” Neff says. “I had the pleasure of meeting about 15 alumni who are doing some form of entrepreneurship and doing it well. Several have offered to mentor me as I move forward into the fundraising and sustainability phase of the project.

“These relationships will help me make a lasting impact in Harlan County while keeping me connected to a myriad of socially conscientious Oberlin alumni. Less than one month into this fellowship, I can already feel the impact it will have on me by building my capacity to be a successful social entrepreneur.”

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