Rockport couple creates garden shares to support education foundation
ROCKPORT — Sitting in Michelle Bianchi's garden on a sunny morning — the last day of July — it's difficult not to ease into the serenity of the space. Greens and flowers nearly overflow from impeccably maintained raised beds, and bees buzz about. The garden has become more than just a peaceful space that yields a delicious bounty, however, it has become an innovative fundraising tool for the Michelle and Frederick Bianchi Education Foundation, incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2015 by Michelle and her husband, Frederick. In 2016, Michelle began selling Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to benefit the Foundation.
The Foundation was forged with a unique mission: to supply school uniforms to students in the impoverished region of Kenya. The uniforms are required by the government, Bianchi said, and the financial burden is "a daily conversation in families and in schools, if you don't have a uniform, you don't go to school."
Though many of the schools in Kenya are government funded, the funds don't always cover the requisite costs, leaving the burden to local families. The cost of a school uniform is approximately $12 U.S., Bianchi said.
"For families who have nothing, that's nearly impossible," she added.
Bianchi said that her fascination with Africa began when she was a child. When her own son graduated from high school in 2013, she said she began to research the best way to get there, and ended up becoming involved with a volunteer organization. She headed to Kenya in 2014 with her sites set on working in a medical clinic. When she got there, the clinic did not even exist. Instead, she put her 13 years of professional gardening experience to use, helping rural families grow the food vital to survival.
Just two weeks into her month-long stay, Bianchi said she called her husband.
"We have to find a way we can help," she told him.
Bianchi said that despite obstacles that include prohibitive costs, food insecurity, and lengthy commutes on foot for students, the cultural focus on education is inspiring.
"[While volunteering in 2014] I felt so taken care of by the families. The emphasis placed on education is truly the biggest I have seen anywhere. Kids know that their role is to go to school, to get a good education. I looked at what I could achieve, and therefore make a difference, and the uniforms stuck right out," she said.
The cost of a uniform is a "hardship on top of many hardships" for families in the region.
Now, Bianchi has made three trips to Africa, and said that she has a number of contacts that assist her in choosing a local school to receive the gift of uniforms supplied by the Bianchi Foundation. In 2016, they were able to donate 100 uniforms, in 2017 the number climbed to 132. While the organization is in its infancy, Bianchi chooses to focus on executing dedicated projects that she can see through, "from start to finish." This includes measuring the students for uniforms and arranging a car to drive her to Nairobi where the uniforms are ordered and stitched. Sometimes uniforms can be handed down, but often they are "worn threadbare" she added.
All of the funds raised by the Foundation go directly to its mission. Michelle said that she and Frederick finance their own travel, ensuring that every dollar raised goes directly to paying for uniforms. The Foundation fundraises in traditional ways, they send out an annual appeal, and they raise money through their website and Facebook page, however the CSA shares add an additional element to their development plan.
"Whenever I was out in the garden, I would think about Africa, and the work I did there. Last year I thought, 'how can I make the garden benefit Africa?'" Michelle said. In the spring of 2016, she did just that, offering CSA shares that she says have sold "mostly by word of mouth."
In 2017, she nearly doubled the size of her garden, adding 11 raised beds. The CSA shares are delivered on Fridays to subscribers' homes or businesses Camden and Rockport. Michelle said that the garden is capable of producing 12 to 18 full shares a week, and a subscription is $150. She currently has six shares remaining that will go through the end of September.
"I wanted to see what the [newly resized] garden is capable of," she said.
Noting that current CSA members have been receiving deliveries since the end of June. The shares are impressive in size, and include vegetables, herbs, and flowers. While the garden is not certified organic, Michelle noted that she maintains fully organic practices, even handpicking pests as opposed to using pesticides. In addition to offering six additional shares for 2017, Michelle said she is also taking reservations for the 2018 CSA program.
"I want people to be able to do it, to afford to do it, and to to know that they are helping," Michelle said, of her CSA program.
CSA members look forward to "the best of what's available," in their deliveries. That may include multiple varieties of tomatoes, greens, broccoli, peas, multiple varieties of beans, berries, kale, chard, peppers (both sweet and hot), onions, beets, brussels sprouts, sweet corn, and more, depending on the season. Michelle's expansive herb garden is brimming with multiple varieties of basil, and savory herbs including sage and rosemary, all awaiting delivery to the tables of CSA members. In another raised bed, colorful flowers stretch skyward. One crop that is notably absent are winter squash varieties, Michelle explained that due to the couple's travel schedule, she aims to put the garden to bed by early October.
Michelle plans to hold a garden open house in August, and noted that a date would be announced on the Foundation's Facebook Page.
To purchase a 2017 CSA share, or to reserve a CSA share for 2018, please contact Michelle via email at email@example.com. To learn more about the Frederick and Michelle Bianchi Education Foundation, visit bianchi-foundation.org.