Bullock Garden Project
I am incredibly honored to share this conversation for the season finale of the podcast with Sonya Harris. Sonya is a special-education teacher turned garden educator and philanthropist. In 2017, she established the nonprofit Bullock Garden Project to share the joy of gardening with her community and help alleviate food insecurity. She teaches kids and adults to grow their own food. Her tireless work and enthusiasm has even inspired many of her former students to pursue careers as future green industry leaders.
Sonya’s work in garden-education began back in 2008 when she was looking for creative ways to teach her students math. As a teacher, she did whatever it took to get her kids to learn, and that sometimes meant taking lessons outside the four walls of the classroom. When she experienced the success of her outdoor teaching experiment, she came up with the idea to start a garden at her school.
On a whim, she reached out to Ahmed Hassan, a prominent landscape designer, and the host of the reality show Yard Crashers. He got back to Sonya, and helped steer her in the right direction, which led to a fruitful yearlong mentorship. In speaking to Ahmed, Sonya learned all she needed to know to get her school's garden up and running.
As a result of learning how to grow food, Sonya became more interested in knowing where her own food came from, and finding more ways to provide access to healthy food to her students. Many of the kids she taught came from food insecurity, making her project that much more essential. Sonya remembers one day noticing one of her first graders only had a bag of chips and a soda for lunch. She discovered the cafeteria wouldn’t give the girl a proper lunch because she had an unpaid bill of $5. Sonya was outraged and rallied all the teachers together to help pay all the students' outstanding cafeteria bills.
Luckily, Sonya discovered that New Jersey is one of the few states where it is legal for schools to feed students the food they grow on the premises. Ahmed assisted Sonya in enlisting as many donors as they could. He even provided connections with other landscape designers to volunteer their time to help create a truly inspiring space. The school had no budget for the garden, but with Sonya's tireless dedication (often working 16 hour days), she was able to pull through nearly $200,000 in donations to get a prolific garden up and running for her students.
This garden brought notoriety to her and her school, helped feed her students, and launched her second career into non-profit work full time. Originally Sonya just planned help teachers in New Jersey, but within one month of launching her website, she clocked 40 requests from schools all over the world. Since then, she has consulted countless schools, teachers, and town leaders on ways they can build a similar garden project in their own community.
In 2019, Sonya made the decision to retire from teaching. Public education was not what it once was. Sonya disliked that the institutions now emphasized success in testing rather than the growth and well-being of the students. In our conversation, Sonya recounts how as a teacher she spent thousands of dollars from her personal income each year on classroom supplies, as the school would not provide her with a budget for these things. She is adamant that all teachers do this work for the passion and the love for kids, but teachers are hurting right now, and passion is not enough to sustain them. Many of Sonya's fellow friends and colleagues have quit the profession due to burnout and systemic issues, yet are heartbroken at having to say goodbye to the children they worked with.
Sonya's own work went into overdrive during the pandemic. New Jersey was especially hard by the virus in the early days, and as well as by unemployment and food insecurity. Families and individuals that never had to grapple with going hungry were left without work, and struggled to find ways to put food on the table. Sonya saw where she could provide her skills into expanding and helping out not just kids, but the community at large. She found ways to source food and plant donations from stores all over New Jersey. She lent her time driving around the state delivering food and plants, and helping more people learn the simple skills needed to grow their own produce right from home.
Speaking to Sonya, I was incredibly moved by her commitment and enthusiasm in a life dedicated to service. Her story illustrates the power that one individual has to enact positive change in the world. I hope listening to her will inspire you to advocate for teachers. Most people go into the profession with the best of intentions and a love for helping children. Listen to what they have to say, because teachers provide an absolutely essential service to the world.
In our conversation we speak about the pandemic’s effects on food insecurity, the harsh realities of our desperately underfunded public schools, why teacher’s voices need to be heard, and the problem with politicizing education. We speak about how Sonya fell in love with gardening, how she was able to fundraise for her school, and why now more than ever, we need to prioritize kids’ health and wellbeing.
This is a story about the power one person has to do radical good, the importance of great teachers, healing communities through self-reliance, and the beauty of a life dedicated to service.