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October 21, 2019

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With lessons learned in Obama Foundation fellowship, Las Vegan hopes to bring community gardens to more classrooms

Green Our Planet School Gardens

Courtesy / Green Our Planet

A student from Oran Gragson works on the garden. The nonprofit Green Our Planet provides soil, seeds and automatic drip irrigation for the gardens.

Green Our Planet School Gardens

Students from Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, Sewell Elementary School and Coronado High School gathered at Whole Foods Market in Henderson on May 28, 2014 for the first-ever collaborative school farmer's market. The students grew and sold all of the produce and crafts themselves and netted hundreds of dollars for their school gardens. Launch slideshow »

Members of Green Our Planet, a Las Vegas nonprofit group, are taking the “think locally, act globally” mantra to another level.

Co-founder Ciara Byrne, who has long been passionate about education and conservation, hopes to integrate community gardens and STEAM education in classrooms across the nation. That mission will be easier after the Las Vegas resident last month was one of 20 selected from a pool of 5,000 applicants by the Obama Foundation for its second fellowship class.

The two-year fellowship provides resources and on-hand training to fellows to help them expand their work on a grander scale. Fellows participate in gatherings where they can collaborate and exchange ideas as well as connect with future partners.

“Without conservation, there is no education,” Byrne said.

Byrne started Green Our Planet with her partner Kim MacQuarrie in 2013 as a platform to crowdfund environmental projects. The organization partners with Clark County schools to assist students in becoming “farm-preneurs” by employing local farmers to teach weekly environmental lessons. The pre-K through fifth-grade curriculum has since expanded the program to include student-run farmers markets, chef-to-school programs, monarch butterfly gardens and more.

“We do school gardens like no other in the United States,” she said.

Byrne said the nonprofit is on the verge of scaling even further, expanding to Northern Nevada as well as Mesquite and Pahrump. The fellowship program, she said, will help them expand across the country.

Over the next two years, Byrne and other Obama fellows will participate in several gatherings to hone their skills and exchange ideas. They already met once this month.

“We had many conversations about fundraising,” Byrne said. “One thing that struck me when I met with Michelle Obama is that the nonprofit model is broken. We are expecting nonprofit leaders to work for less money … if we want people at the table to solve problems, we need the best people and we need to be able to pay them.”

Byrne said she hopes the fellowship program will eventually help her provide employees with better wages and health insurance.

Conservation education

Brenda Rodriguez, who leads education programs at local schools with Green Our Planet, joined the nonprofit when she started questioning the legacy she wanted to leave behind.

“Ciara and her mission really struck home,” Rodriguez said. “I want to make a difference in a child’s life … even if it’s just one.”

Rodriguez, who has three children, said working with students at the community gardens has been an “absolute joy and adventure.” While fun, Rodriguez doesn’t “dummy down” the curriculum for the children.

“I challenge them,” she said. “I want to spark their interest to learn more. A good response is when they are constantly asking questions. That’s what I want from them.”

It’s not just about education though, Rodriguez said. It’s also about expanding their food choices and empowering them to grow food themselves.

“I want to show them it doesn’t have to come in a plastic bag from a grocery store,” she said. “You can actually do this.”

Giving back

Byrne and MacQuarrie have always cared about planet conservation. Both have decades of experience in documentary filmmaking, as Byrne ran her own large firm and MacQuarrie won multiple Emmys on his films about natural history. MacQuarrie, who grew up in Las Vegas, has been interested in natural history since childhood.

“When you went into my bedroom, it was like a zoo,” he said.

Both Byrne and MacQuarrie spent years traveling the world on projects. When the couple started Green Our Planet, one of their friends suggested they start raising money for school garden projects in Las Vegas. It was a way for MacQuarrie to not only return home, but also give back to his community. Three of the schools they worked with were schools he attended as a kid.

“Our philosophy is to be part of our community and connect kids with nature,” MacQuarrie said. “It’s big and grand to save things in Africa and China — which are equally worthy — but you have to start at your own backyard.”

MacQuarrie said if people don’t care about what’s going on in their own backyard, “nothing else matters.”

Both Byrne and MacQuarrie believe that these micro actions will eventually lead to macro impacts on a grander scale.

“The journey we’ve been on the last six years has made us realize that there is enormous power in community,” Byrne said. “Through everyone working together, you ultimately protect the planet in the end.”