Plant It Forward Farms is one of those rare solutions to a problem that really has the potential to flourish in more ways than one. The organization partners with local social and religious groups to provide land and tools to refugees with farming skills who settle in Houston.
Houston is already known as one of the most diverse cities in our nation, resettling 3,000 refugees yearly. I learned from TERESA O’DONNELL, co-creator of Plant It Forward with her brother, PAT O’DONNELL, that “to be a refugee you have to make it out of your country; you have to flee. Then you can apply to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee status. You have to prove that you are being persecuted for your religion, in fear of your life, or that you don’t trust your government to protect you.” Then it takes 5–10 years on average to be relocated. By the time all the requirements are met and refugees come to the US, they are faced with an unfamiliar world where even turning on warm water has to be learned. Plant It Forward offers them sustainability through something familiar.
A series of serendipitous events led to Plant It Forward, beginning with the book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Pat, owner of a successful software company, wanted to invest in their employees, basing the idea on the five elements: Career, Financial, Social, Physical and Community Wellbeing. Each executive picked an element; Teresa’s was Community. A Houston Chronicle article about refugees led her to reach out to a resettlement agency. “By the time I left an hour later [after welcoming a Somalian family at Hobby], I knew that this had been a pivotal moment for me. My heart had been changed and my life was probably going to change. But I didn’t know what we could do. I couldn’t see the fit with my software company and these refugees,” shared Teresa. But A SoCal Insider with Rick Reiff on PBS would start Teresa in the right direction: actress Tippi Hedren asked her manicurist to teach the Vietnamese refugees how to do nails, creating a billion dollar industry that even today is still dominated by Vietnamese-Americans. Teresa’s learning journey continued with Urban Harvest and the concept of Market Gardening. Then, Teresa negotiated with a church for use of their three acres of land to be used as farmland by 14 Congolese refugees, farmers in their homelands. They would teach them to farm organically, harvest and sell the goods to provide for their families, while providing fresh, organic, urban-grown goods to the community.
It took 10 months for the land deal to come through, and Plant It Forward could start an urban revolution. Today, there are nine individual farms at four Houston locations.
The capacity of our local community to flourish with this model is astounding: from unused and neglected land seeing new life, to refugees given real hope and the potential to be pillars in our community, to consumers having access to locally grown seasonal food. Teresa’s wish for Plant It Forward “is that we will secure the funding to create a Plant It Forward model training farm. This will give us a place to demonstrate best practices in urban farming and a training location for a new set of refugee farmers in 2017.”