Urban Farming in Dayton – how service opens unexpected doors

By Ellen Yoder, Marianist PULSE Program

It has been nearly two years since responding to the call to serve with the Marianist PULSE Program in Dayton, Ohio. Before the call to serve, I was discerning a career in professional sports. The same day I accepted a job with a minor league baseball team was also the same day the Marianist PULSE (Partners in Urban Leadership, Service, and Education) application was due. Prior, I had been going back and forth on why I was still feeling called to even put my name in the hat for a brand new program I hardly knew anything about… alone a path hardly related to the career path I was already set-up for.

But, after spending four years at the University of Dayton, I grew to believe in the impact the Marianist family and charism. Fast forward to my acceptance into the first Marianist PULSE cohort (MP1), I was matched to serve my year with Mission of Mary Cooperative an urban farm in East Dayton. Mission of Mary is located in a neighborhood where nearly 60% of the neighbors are living below the poverty line. Dayton is known as a food desert; meaning there is a lack of food access to healthy options such fresh produce to those living below the margins which can lead to dietary disease and other further health risks. Through education, beautification and providing healthy affordable produce to the neighborhood, Mission of Mary seeks to create a more just food system and an inclusive community all while carrying out the Marianist values.

During those first few weeks, between the 90° heat and the hard labor, the days where rough. Each day I found myself getting frustrated for not being able to keep up on day-to-day tasks, embarrassingly not knowing my vegetables, and having zero energy for the mile-long bike ride home. But when I did get home to the rest of MP1, who also served at various non-profits in the Dayton community, we pretty regularly would gather around the dinner table to share meals and reflections on our days. We’d often go around, giving our highs and lows for the day and without realizing, hours would often pass as the conversations dove deeper into the issues, passions, energy and laughter that consumed our minds and hearts from the areas in which we served. Through these conversations with MP1 and our faith formation, I was lead to pray and discern on continuing my work for the common good in my post-PULSE life.

PULSE volunteer community

As the physical frustrations of the job dissolved, I could not help but have deeper concerns with the work I was doing in East Dayton. These concerns ended up being some key turning points for my call to continue similar work to what I had been doing at Mission of Mary. Concerns surrounding local food access, lack of food education, and the viscous cycle of poverty were some of my main motivators. I was not satisfied with the contributions I had made and felt I had more to give and learn.

Around April of last year, I was approached by a non-profit here in Dayton looking at expanding their urban agriculture and food access initiatives. They were interested in having me head up their urban agriculture operations. I immediately talked myself out of it and had quite a bit of self-doubt. There was no way after less than a year of urban farming I could run a farm on my own.
Obviously, with the help of my community, MP1, those thoughts only lasted .2 seconds. Farmer Ellen was here to stay!

I accepted the Farm Manager position for Homefull, a non-profit in Dayton that provides various services to the homeless centered around housing, food and jobs. Every day comes with new challenges and excitement as I am still learning the tricks of the trade in not only urban agriculture, but working alongside our clients. Some days are long, others are more exciting, but they are all meaningful and continue to give me purpose to come back even more motivated the next day.

Aside from managing the farm operations for Homefull and with the help of co-workers and Marianist PULSE Coordinator, Maureen O’Rourke, we have been able to dream up and put together a Food Access Specialist position. Beginning August 2018, I will be co-supervising a Marianist PULSE volunteer serving their year with Homefull to provide more resources to local food access within West Dayton.

The past six months since serving with PULSE have opened more doors than I ever expected. Recently, I was invited to sit on the national selection committee for the third Marianist PULSE cohort (MP3!). Returning to the Marianist PULSE table, this time with a different perspective, brought even more meaning to my experience with PULSE and was able to help me reflect on the tremendous impact PULSE has had on my life. The support and encouragement I have been given the past year and a half has absolutely blown me away. It has been a main driver to keep pushing forward in helping to create a better community.

I have recently been asked a few times about what advice I would give current undergrads or current post-grad volunteers when it comes to responding to God’s call. My advice is simple, listen. Listen when you have the confidence to do more, that’s faith; listen when others are believing in you, that’s hope; and listen when your heart burns with passion, that’s love.


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