By Elora Overbey, Phase II Fellow
This time last year, fall had just arrived hot off the heels of a whirlwind summer, and we were a few days from learning our Phase II placements for the coming year.
My hamster wheel was turning full speed. Where was I going to be next year? What was I going to be doing? How was I going to begin to apply the skills I’d been working on? Generally speaking - I was a nervous mess.
The day came and I was asked to stay on the AMI Mountain Farm for the following year to help with the next year’s Fellows and work with community outreach projects in Monterey. To be fully honest, I was excited and terrified. I’ve always struggled with staying in one place for an extended period of time, especially when things get challenging. I was terrified of feeling stuck, isolated, or perhaps my biggest fear - lonely.
In early January, I moved back to Monterey with my good friend and fellow Phase II Fellow, Mary-Ellen. We arrived just in time for a week-long cold snap that pushed the temperature to -10F. I settled back into life in Monterey: working from AMI Education Director Jessa’s warm kitchen table with endless mugs of tea, assisting with recruitment for Phase I Fellows, connecting with community members and making new friends. The Highland community truly took Mary-Ellen and I in and never before had I experienced such a strong and comforting sense of community.
The summer abundance in vegetables from the garden gave way to near worship of the canned tomatoes and preserves we had put up months before. The nearest grocery store selling fresh produce was over an hour away on mountain roads, bringing a whole new perspective to the wisdom, and sometimes lost art, of food preservation and eating seasonally.
When March arrived, I moved into the farmhouse on the Mountain Farm to see to the growing greenhouse of baby plant starts and provided for their daily care. I had never lived by myself before and for a time, became the only full-time resident on the beautiful and snowy Bear Mountain. During that time, I discovered sanctuary and isolation are often two sides of the same coin: it’s mindset that defines the difference. I found sanctuary in both the mountain and in the company of myself.
Then, the Fellows arrived and suddenly the season took off. Here are just a few of the things I’ve accomplished so far:
*Held almost 50 school garden sessions at Highland County Public Schools in collaboration with Sarah Cockerham and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
*Organized multiple field trips to the farm for Highland Elementary School students.
*Coordinated a Summer Garden Program with increased attendance and lessons led by Phase I Fellows.
*Hosted a successful Seed Swap with our local Seed Library and free community workshops on Integrated Pest Management, Composting, Wild Fermentation, and Canning.
*Hosted over 20 farm stay guests for our new pilot program, which invites guests to the farm to stay, experience the gardens, and participate in workshops.
*Contributed to weekly and monthly donations to local food pantries and Meals on Wheels program as part of an awarded grant that I helped write.
*Helped to judge the school science fair, make milkshakes with FFA during the Maple Festival, and ran the Vegetable Barn during the Highland County Fair.
To say I’ve learned a lot this past year would be a massive understatement.
This year has given me many experiences in learning to lead, teach, provide stability and perspective, strengthen community relationships, and help connect people to the magic of growing, preparing, and preserving their own food. I've continued to grow and learn through our Phase II workshops and professional development sessions. I've been supported by my cohort and the AMI staff at our monthly cohort days and check-ins.
I’ve also learned how to Contra dance, tap for maple syrup, play cello, change many a spare tire, unfreeze pipes, play softball, bottle cider, process meat, and navigate the challenges of transporting a rooster in the front seat of a Volvo.
Above all I’ve learned the importance of committing to seeing things through. This has not been my easiest year but by far, it has been one of the most rewarding. I am so thankful for the Highland community. Throughout this process, it has been a wonderful source of warmth, support, friendship and truly demonstrates the power of community in the way people care for one another.
The same questions are beginning to surface around the same time this year: where will I be in a year? What will I be doing? How do I apply these skills to my next chapter? I don’t know how these questions will be answered yet, but I do know that the experiences I’ve had at AMI have planted the seeds for future adventures.
There are still days, and sometimes weeks, when the hamster wheel begins to spin, but when I really think of this next chapter, I feel a confidence and security in being able to rise to the challenges of whatever the future may hold. And, above all, I will always carry with me a deep gratitude and love for my time here and everything it has taught me.