NYC high schooler’s community garden will give her neighbors a breath of fresh air

With the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth), ioby is excited to present  the second year of the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge! Just like last year, the 2017 Challenge is supporting residents across New York state who are taking an active role in creating a culture of health where they live. To read more about how the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge came to be, check out this blog post from last summer.

Donations to the all of this year’s participating campaigns (including the one we’re profiling below) will be matched dollar-for-dollar  by NYSHealth through  May 25. That means your gift will go twice as far to improve public health outcomes across New York!

“There’s kind of a stigma around living or being near NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] buildings,” says Veronica Vasquez, a NYCHA resident and leader of the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge campaign Blooming Streets – NYCHA Community Garden. “When you look at them, they’re just brick and bars. I want to give us something to be proud of as we look in our back yard. Some beauty and some colors!”

Veronica and Liz

[Veronica with her mom, Liz]

Veronica is a junior at East Side Community School in Manhattan’s East Village. Together with her mom Liz, she’s leading her first ioby project this year. Their plan is to work with their neighbors to build a community garden on the grounds of their apartment building that will, in Veronica’s words, “embrace and pull together this community. Make it a real neighborhood.” The 17-year-old pictures lots of flowers in the garden’s beds—”probably some of my mom’s favorites, tulips”—as well as fragrant and relaxing herbs like chamomile and lavender.

Several motivations have led Veronica to step up and lead this initiative for her community. For one, she’d like to feel closer to her neighbors. “I’ve lived here my whole life, but I rarely get to see or talk to a lot of the other people who live here,” she says. “I want to give us a space where we can work together. There’s something so special about taking part in the growth of something, and all watching it grow together.”

Veronica and Liz have spoken to many of their neighbors about the garden, as well a local church group and people at Veronica’s school, and have gotten overwhelmingly positive responses. “I especially wanted to know how people my age would feel about it,” Veronica says. “They either donated, or said, ‘I want to put my hands in this dirt with you.’ It was amazing, that kind of support.”

[The NYCHA housing where Veronica and Liz live]

Another motivator was the mother-daughter team’s abiding love of the natural world, and frustration with their limited options for living a greener life. “We love the environment and try to save it any way we can,” Veronica explains, “but at NYCHA we don’t have recycling pickup, or any green space. The city doesn’t provide composting bins or energy-efficient light bulbs. It’s sad because I learn all about sustainable living in school and come home with all these amazing ideas, but then I have no outlet for them.”

Lastly, when planning this project, Veronica had health on her mind (pun intended). “I think everyone needs green space to be healthy—mentally and physically,” she says. “In NYC, we live at such a fast pace that it’s really easy to forget to sit down and enjoy, or just take a stroll for the sake of it. If I can bring those abilities to my neighbors, bring them the peace of mind they offer, it would be amazing.”

Veronica recently interned at the Lowline Lab, a prototype for a future green space in a former trolley terminal beneath the city’s streets. She loved working with the plants in the underground park and learning how to care for them. She also found out about the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge there (through her supervisor), and about NYCHA’s Resident Green Committee Program (through one of its coordinators, an invited speaker). Now, with their support, Veronica and her mom are working on selecting a plot of land to propose for the garden; then they’ll apply to NYCHA for a permit to start building it up.

Lowline Lab

[The Lowline Lab, where  Veronica recently interned. Via the Lowline]

While they’re taking the lead on getting the garden started, Veronica and Liz want their neighbors to bring any and all ideas—and skills, and materials—to the table. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” she says, “so if people have things like seeds, gloves, or building materials they can donate, or if they can lend a hand with expertise or want to volunteer, we want them! If not, they can just spread the word and tell others about it. Whatever people can do to let us all live a little healthier.”

In the future, Veronica would love to see the garden grow into a full-on community farm that produces food for NYC homeless shelters. In the shorter term, she’s just excited to get started.

“I think about this all the time!” she says. “I think I’ll know I did really great, I’ll know I’ve achieved my dream, if someone comes up to me and says, ‘This is the place I go when I’m stressed out, and I just need a little bit of earth.’ I would say that’s it; job well done.”