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By Mary-Ellen Garner

Often, the people I meet, both here in Highland County and elsewhere, ask me why I am at Allegheny Mountain Institute and what we are doing up here on the mountain. You would that think after a dozen or so renditions, I would have solidified a fairly cohesive response, but for some reason, I still haven’t gotten it down.

For me, it feels so obvious why I am here. It’s the next logical step for my life because of where I have come from and where I want to go. And though it feels natural and sequential to me, I think that I often fall short in explaining the larger picture to those who are sincerely asking for my honest response. I’d like to take a more holistic approach at it here for my own benefit and hopefully, for the benefit of others as well.

Rainbow at AMI (photo credit: Elora Overbey)

I came across a quote a few years back that quite accurately sums up my ideological beliefs about life and purpose. Though I am not really religious myself, it was the theologian Frederick Buechner that uttered these words: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

This quote entered into existence in my own little world at an important point in my life; it came to me the year that I was required to take an interdisciplinary course (Music, 3-D Art, Physics) co-taught and designed by three professors. Students were given the task of inventing, designing, constructing, and performing an instrument. This course was instrumental for three reasons: I learned that I have an eye for design on a 3-dimensional scale; that I was skilled at working with my hands to create objects out of wood, metal, and other materials; and that such work was intellectually stimulating in a different way than my other courses. It also further challenged and strengthened my ability to be a proficient problem solver and critical thinker. Overall it served to push me out of my comfort zone and urged me (if ever so slightly), to start choosing classes and pursuing opportunities more hands-on in nature.

To give you a bit of background, my previous coursework had focused on International Development and Pre-Medicine. I was convinced that I wanted to work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders. It was in this mind-set that I chose to study abroad in Kenya, and was focused on urbanization, health, and human rights. During this time in my life, I became intrigued by the nature and power of preventative health, and its undeniably understated importance in the medical field. I was most fixated on communicable disease prevention, but I also learned that malnutrition, diabetes (type II) and their long-term complications now pose a threat that could equal or surpass that of the AIDS epidemic. It was these preventable--and often diet-related--diseases that would haunt me when I returned to the U.S. This experience solidified my desire to work with vulnerable populations, but more importantly, served as a very real and devastating reminder of what poverty and ill-health looks like. It also spurred me to take curricula that focused on the root-causes, complications, and possible solutions of poverty. It was via these classes that I became introduced to the concept of food-security.

The next year, a dear friend recruited me to go on an immersion trip that she was leading through our college. The weekend focused on the eradication of food-deserts and food-insecurity through urban farming. We got to do some volunteer work, both at a community farm and at a local elementary school. It’s hard for me to put into words exactly how enchanting that weekend was. I was overcome by all sorts of emotions and thoughts, but most of all what I felt was gratitude for the people I met in the community, for the fulfilling nature of working with the earth, and for a radically new set of perspectives.

I’d like to say that I made a choice that weekend to pursue farming-related opportunities, but it’s not exactly true. I was still clinging to the notion that pursuing medicine was my vehicle to personal happiness. I had already made a decision to take a year off before committing to medical school, claiming that I needed some time off to break up the grueling stress and fatigue of getting a degree. But, let’s be honest, it was never really going to happen. I had continually been putting off taking the MCAT, and, by this point, was generally unenthused by the prospect of six more years and hundreds of thousands of dollars towards something I was coming to realize that I couldn’t fully support.

Just after graduation, I bought a one-way ticket to Maine for a wedding, hoping to stay and WWOOF (work exchange) on a farm in the area. I ended up staying for the rest of the season as an apprentice. From the very beginning, I was hooked. The longer I stayed the more I knew that I wanted to keep pursuing this path, but with my own needs infused as well.

Radishes I grew from seed to harvest (Photo credit: Mary-Ellen Garner)

Allegheny Mountain Institute appealed to me so deeply because of the holistic way in which I think we are approaching issues related to food and health. I already feel like I have gained so much in being here and we aren’t even halfway done with the first phase yet! We have completed a variety of workshops covering quite diverse topics, from beekeeping to seed saving, but I honestly think that most of my growth has come in less concrete experiences. For example, the confidence that I have gained in growing my own food from seed in addition to feeling more equipped to run my own garden or farm in the near future, has been a big transformation for me. I believe that my vocation will build upon these skills, and that hopefully, this vocation will help to meet some of the worlds greatest needs.

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