Planting Seeds of Hope in Newark

Project Coordinator’s (PC’s) are stewards and ambassadors of Jersey Cares, leading other volunteers in projects that benefit the community.  Project Coordinators drive social change by leading well-managed, sustainable projects and programs that meet community-identified needs and provide volunteers with a positive experience, inspiring everyone to continue their journey of service.  This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting opportunities and partner agencies that have a need for Project Coordinators. 

Emilio Panasci, Co-Director of Operations and Education for the SWAG Project (also known as Planting Seeds of Hope) at Plant it Forward in Newark, can be seen in many different lights.  However, a visionary and a leader are what are undeniably true. Leading many different volunteer opportunities and working hard to provide community food access for residents of Newark, Emilio and his team are increasing the educational and economic opportunities around Newark to take back control of their local food system and health. We decided to interview Emilio and dig a bit deeper to find out what the motivation was to create this opportunity.

What made you want to start this initiative and what steps did you have to take to get there? 

“S.W.A.G Project Farm started as a partnership between TEAM Academy, Peshine Avenue School, First Tabernacle House of Worship, and the City of Newark. My organization, Planting Seeds of Hope, played a facilitator role. We built a small community garden on the grounds of the Tabernacle. our assumption was students and teachers would adopt the garden as their own with the help of the church. However, management of a community garden was something that needed more help and so my organization stayed involved at first very casually, but each year started adding more growing space and programs. By the time we got from 2009 to 2013 we were already having enrichment classes in the Spring and Fall for students, on-site farm stand, and even helping other organizations start gardens around the city!”

Planting Seeds of Hope is seen as more than just a way to plant and grow healthy food.  It also serves as an opportunity to provide a deeper relationship with the City of Newark and involve the community to gain a sense of community surrounding the topic of food access. The program serves to build a more unified community. With the countless volunteer opportunities Planting Seeds of Hope offers for the community, we asked Emilio what he found most enjoyable about the experience and what are the major takeaways he would like his volunteers to walk away with.

What is your favorite part of everything that you do?

“Not to sound corny but my favorite part of Urban Agriculture work is just connecting with people around the joy of being outside and being around healthy food and nature. We love that we make an impact on people’s health and on their lifestyle, and for grant applications we must quantify our impact with specific evaluation measures. Yet I think so much of community development is intangible. On a day-to-day basis one of the best things is just joking around with a volunteer at the garden or market, while also discussing what healthy local food means in their life, knowing they will always think “local food” is cool and exciting.

What are some takeaways you want volunteers and Project Coordinators to have at the end of the opportunity?

“When people volunteer with us, I hope that they get first and foremost a fun experience and a sense of belonging no matter what their background or life situation may be like. Being in a garden and working with soil and plants should be a relaxing and inclusive experience. We are not a place that needs to demand a lot of hard work or skill level when you first visit us. In fact, we want people to be creative and ask questions and just do what they are able, not more. The philosophy is that if people want to get more serious about agriculture or food justice in the future, they need to have fun first! Then, there are many places that they can pursue more advanced training, but they could always remember that they got their start and they have a family of support at S.W.A.G. project- and they can always come back and take on more responsibility and projects!”

Learning more about the man behind S.W.A.G. Project, we had to find out more information on who Emilio was outside of his organization and what drives his passion. When asking Emilio more about what keeps him motivated, he stated,

“I’ve always been interested in nature, but I am definitely not an agriculture specialist. In fact, I went to school for Urban Planning (Undergraduate in Literature and Philosophy) and consider myself sort of a Community Organizer and Project Manager.  Yet really, I’m a Facilitator of the Development of Community Based Projects trying to bring together lots of other people to work in collaboration and obtain the resources they need to be successful. But local food system projects touch on everything that I care about from environmental and health improvement to racial and social justice issues. I love getting my hands dirty and I also love talking to local government officials and funders at fancy meetings. I love teaching kids about worms as well as seeing land be rehabilitated and preserved for ag! I guess I like that this kind of work has many sides to it and is never dull. 

Ready to join Emilio at Plant it Forward in Newark (Planting Seeds of Hope)? Then don’t hesitate to become a Project Coordinator today!  Click here to learn more and sign up today.

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