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One of the best ways to change the world is to grow a community of volunteers. As a founding member of In Good Company, EILEEN FISHER has been doing just that by joining with like- minded companies to work on community service projects: building straw bale houses on a Hopi reservation, planting urban gardens in the South Bronx—and more.
With each weeklong project, we eat, sleep and hoist power tools alongside community members and employees from Clif Bar, Annie's Homegrown, Seventh Generation, Timberland, Numi Organic Tea and other member companies. Each of these projects needs volunteers, so you're invited to contact the nonprofits mentioned and join in.
Leonora Merkel, Hopi Reservation, 2010
The Hopi have a concept of na'ya, which means coming together toward one goal. By building a straw bale house on a Hopi reservation in Arizona, we did just that.
On the first day, there was only a concrete foundation. By the end of the week, we could look back and see the frame of a house.
In Good Company and Red Feather Development Group brought together community members and a diverse range of volunteers. The work was physically challenging. I used heavy-duty power tools for the first time and helped erect straw bale walls and the roof structure. Windstorms blew in incredible amounts of dirt on everything. There was no running water. Sometimes I wasn't sure I could get through the day, much less the week. But I was working for a cause I believed in.
Affordable, sustainable housing is a critical need on American Indian reservations. And it wasn't all work—we had a chance to meet so many people and to experience native culture, ceremonies and food. Someday I hope to come back with friends and build another straw bale house—or work on one of Red Feather's other projects listed on its website.
Stanley Todd, South Bronx Project, 2012
I was born and raised in the Bronx, so it was great to go back and build urban gardens. We actually had to colonize asphalt by constructing rat-proof, raised beds and filling them with soil, shovel by shovel.
We built two beehives and learned how important bees are to our food supply. Our community partners were Project EATS and Bronx Green-Up, an outreach program of the New York Botanical Garden. They picked three high schools for these gardens.
During the school year, they help the kids grow fruit and vegetables and learn about healthy eating. It's hard to buy vegetables in the South Bronx—the stores push junk and sweet stuff. The experience opened my eyes a bit, so I put my daughter Ellah in a children's gardening program at the New York Botanical Garden. I don't think they teach this in her school, and I don't have a backyard to teach her myself. Next year I'll enroll my other little girl, Laila, as well.
Carolyn Urbanavage, Gulf Project, 2012
Our mission was to keep a sand dune near the southernmost tip of Louisiana from washing away into the ocean.
This specific location was selected because it's a first stop for migrating birds from South America. The birds spread seeds, allowing new grasses to grow and helping to preserve the land. The ecosystem in Louisiana is mainly marshland that in the past has replenished itself naturally with sediment from flooding. Now, because humans have built dams and levees, the land is disappearing into the ocean at an incredible rate.
So our job was to cover four acres with four hundred black mangrove saplings in four days. We did it by planting tiny trees in biodegradable "sandbags" filled with nutrient rich biomass (and oil-eating microbes) so the saplings could take root without being washed away.
I came away galvanized and wanting to do more. I'm a sales associate at the Ardmore store outside Philadelphia, so I worked with Restore the Earth Foundation, our Gulf Project nonprofit partner, to invite customers to learn about wetlands restoration on the big screen. The crowd's reaction was similar to my own: "I can't believe this is going on—what can we do to help?" It's actually easy. It takes $25 to fill a Gulf Saver Bag. Restore the Earth also needs volunteers for ongoing wetland preservation.
Enid Arnowitz, West Oakland Project, 2011
Getting up on a roof to install solar panels and use power tools—it sounds trite to refer to this as life changing, but it has been that and more.
In West Oakland, we partnered with GRID Alternatives to bring renewable energy to the area's low-income residents. We harvested vegetables on a former vacant lot and helped build a chicken coop with City Slicker Farms. My favorite project was with Urban Biofilter, a nonprofit that creates urban bamboo "forests" to help filter pollution and shield neighborhoods from toxic waste sites. There was something about working with the bamboo—sawing, propagating, splitting roots, watering, bending the split bamboo into a structure (a hoop house/greenhouse made from bamboo)—that was eye-opening to me. Bamboo is a species I'd previously thought of as an invasive weed, but I learned to respect both its toughness and its higher purpose. Being part of a group of volunteers with so many diverse ages, lifestyles and interests really opened my heart. I left with a deep connection to West Oakland's community and respect for the inspiring visions of our nonprofit partners.