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Connecticut College student wins $10,000 grant to establish community garden

NEW LONDON, Conn. - Meredith Byrne, a sophomore at Connecticut College and resident of Brookside, New Jersey, has been awarded a $10,000 grant from The Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace program to create a community garden in Staten Island's Parkhill neighborhood. The Davis 100 Projects for Peace program is designed to encourage and support motivated youth to create and implement their ideas for building peace throughout the world in the 21st century.

Staten Island's Parkhill neighborhood is home to the largest Liberian population outside of West Africa. Many of Parkhill's residents are refugees, displaced by years of instability and civil war in their home country, and the area is prone to crime, drug use and economic instability. "These refugees are living on the periphery of U.S. society, waiting idly for a cue from the international community as to their permanent status," said Byrne, who interned last summer with African Refuge, a Parkhill-based non-profit dedicated to enhancing the lives of disadvantaged peoples.

"Peace for this population lies not only in the absence of conflict but in the security of good health, a sense of self-reliance and the development of a transnational skill set." Byrne, an international relations major and 2009 graduate of West Morris Mendham High School, will use the $10,000 grant to purchase supplies and build and operate a permanent community garden made up of 24 4'x8' raised beds. The Roots of Peace community garden, as it will be called, will serve the Liberian refugee community and many other groups in the Stapleton and Parkhill neighborhoods of Staten Island.

"The garden will create a source of nutrition, a sense of self-reliance and a small stream of revenue for members of Parkhill's refugee and low-income community," she said. Margaret Pickoff, also a 2009 graduate of West Morris Mendham High School, is advising Byrne on the agricultural aspects of the project. Pickoff is a sophomore geology major at Bates College. While the garden won't officially open until early June - a ribbon cutting ceremony is planned for June 11 - the project is already well underway. Byrne has partnered with Healthfirst, a New York-based nonprofit that offers health education; Green Thumb, an organization that provides programming and material support to more than 500 community gardens in New York City; the African Refugee Community Center, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and more than a dozen other community organizations to secure space for the garden, get community buy-in and ensure the long-term success of the project.

"Right now, it's like a full-time job, but I'm so encouraged by the enthusiasm of the entire community," Byrne said. The plants are already sprouting, too. A family friend donated greenhouse space in New Jersey, and the seedlings, which include the spicy herbs, leafy greens and beans, will be ready to transfer to the beds in early summer. Byrne, a scholar in Connecticut College's Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, said the project combines her interests in environmentalism and immigration and refugee issues. On campus, she is a member of Sprout!, the student-run organic garden club and Human Rights Now, a student club devoted to promoting the integrity of all human beings. A member of the women's track team, she also serves as a House Environmental Representative for her residence hall, a fellow with the college's career center and a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Next fall, Byrne will study abroad in Cameroon, conducting research on refugee populations there.

"Cameroon is stable, but surrounded by unstable governments," Byrne said. "The country accepts a lot of refugees, but those refugees are then left to their own defenses. I'm interested in learning about how they assimilate into the culture in Cameroon." Eventually, Byrne hopes to start her own non-profit horticultural movement, establishing community gardens in vulnerable communities across the world. "Community gardens provide residents with affordable, healthy food and give people the opportunity to connect around the familiarity of agriculture and foster a new understanding of self-worth and identity," Byrne said. "It's very powerful."

May 4, 2011