By Katie Gilman, AMI 2015-2016 Fellow
I was drawn to the AMI Fellowship in 2014 when I returned home to Virginia after spending 8 months in rural farming communities in Guatemala. During my travels, I learned about the region’s food production issues and how these issues more deeply affect the peasant farmers that make up the majority of the country’s indigenous population. I realized I wanted to immerse myself in a program with a structured focus on growing food and analyzing food systems.
I was attracted to the idea of spending time with other people who were deeply committed to this same experience and learning process. My time at the AMI Mountain Farm allowed me to unplug, focus-in, soak up and open my eyes to what it means and feels like to grow food, disperse and share it with others and to be in tune with cycles of nature. It helped me reconnect to my roots in Virginia. It made me acquainted with an incredibly special population of Appalachian natives who are astonishingly in sync with their natural surroundings, actively listening and observing the world around them. It helped me define the role that I organically gravitate towards in a group setting and how to embrace my true introverted nature.
In Phase II, I was placed at AMI’s Urban Farm at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton, Virginia (now managed by the school itself). This was a continuation and deepening of what I learned on the mountain, with an opportunity to put more of my own individual creative touch on things. During this time, I blossomed into an active community member that produced and provided fresh, local, organic (though not certified) food into the Staunton area foodshed. We delivered produce to many school cafeterias, restaurants, food banks, homeless shelters, friends and ourselves. What a satisfying feeling!
I was struck by how powerful providing a hands-on learning experience was for the students I worked with. Many of these students – who had perhaps been told that their “disability” would have limited their capabilities – now had the permission and encouragement to get their hands dirty and grow something. Whether it was teaching students planting or harvesting techniques at the Urban Farm or helping an adult translate their workday volunteer experience into a small backyard home garden, I gained more experience and appreciation for teaching others how to provide healthy food for themselves and their families.
AMI played a pivotal role in my personal and professional development both as a human, engaged in buying, growing, and consuming food, and as an agricultural educator. AMI offers a unique experience for inner reflection, with the opportunity to live in the breathtaking Allegheny Mountains for the six months of Phase I. The yearlong placement in Phase II allowed me to fully integrate the hands-on skills, farming practices and intra and interpersonal capabilities in a real way. I have gained training and knowledge that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I feel confident that I will always be able to provide food for myself and community, wherever that might be.
It’s now been 3 years since I finished my time with AMI. I’m currently back in Guatemala where I work with several Guatemalan educators as a Network of Agricultural and Ecological Educators by the name of REISA. We created this organization to offer trainings and workshops based around food sovereignty for 15 to 25 year-olds in rural indigenous Mayan communities. We provide hands-on experiential trainings, similar to the training I received while at AMI.
There is very little access to programs and trainings like these in Guatemala and Central America. These courses are run entirely by donations as well as Guatemalan coffee and textiles sales. We provide these courses free to our participants as a large majority of the population we work with is economically disadvantaged.
We are currently running a 7-day course with 12 participants that ends on February 27th. We are still graciously accepting donations for our next course in May 2019. All donations and purchases are fully tax deductible as we are a project of a 501 (c)(3) non-profit by the name of SERES. If you’re interested in purchasing delicious organic coffee or handwoven textiles send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about REISA and donate at reisaedu.com.