Vine & Fig connects environmentalism to humanity, creates green safe haven

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What do building a self-heated shower, temporarily housing refugees, supporting international engineering projects, and raising chickens have in common?  They are all underway at a little blue house in Downtown Harrisonburg, Vine & Fig.

A partner of Our Community Place and member of the national New Community Project, Vine & Fig exists to “build a more just and peaceful world where all can live in integrity,” according to   The organization takes a systems approach to create a “beloved community” in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The backyard of the Vine & Fig headquarters is what my middle-aged conservative father would call “granola.”  A large mural featuring the verse “And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid” looks over a plot of land filled with gardens, chickens, cats, a composter, and repurposed bicycles.  Surrounding the main property are homes used as offices and temporary housing, one of which is energy independent.

However “granola” the property may appear, granola is nourishing, and Vine & Fig nourishes communities far beyond its own premises.

“We’re not trying to be an enclosed thing, we’re trying to build out a whole neighborhood,” said  Tom Benevento in a 2016 interview for Harrisonblog.

New Community Project has a gardening program that takes aim at the unhealthy diets often thrust upon low-income families.  By helping neighborhoods and elementary schools  secure land and cultivate vegetables, volunteers ensure that nutritious crops become available to all socioeconomic groups.  Not only does having a garden improve diet, it reduces grocery bills and demand for big agriculture that degrades ecosystems.

Vine & Fig also operates its own low-emission farm, which is primarily run by the homeless or unemployed.  Muddy Bike Urban Farm gets its name from the growers’ promise to run a zero-emissions operation; crops are harvested and transported via bicycle trailer.  Muddy Bike has a table at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market each Saturday.  This gives growers an opportunity to connect with others and encourage low-emission farming.

“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can divest from destructive systems that we have in our culture and build things that people can say “yes” to,” said Benevento.  “We can be a positive influence in the natural world and in our communities.”

Another way NCP hopes to reduce CO2 emissions while simultaneously creating community is with the creation of a bike path in the north end of Harrisonburg.  The path will make transportation accessible for low-income citizens who may lack a car or adequate budget for gas.  According to NCP’s website, about 10-20% of Harrisonburg’s residents will be served by the path.

In fact, bicycle transportation is a long-standing movement of Vine & Fig.  Our Community Place runs a free shop where people can come together to make repairs or donate and refurbish old bikes.  Services are always pay-as-you-will.

Offering low-cost services is only one of the many ways NCP welcomes everyone into its projects.  The River Rock House, a property along the gardens of Vine & Fig, houses those who have fallen on hard times, whether that be addiction, eviction, or escape from a war zone.

“It’s a supportive home, a safe place they can be, and a place where they can be surrounded by authentic relationships,” said Benevento.  “Because real healing comes from real relationships.”

New Community Place supplements its service with science.  Partnerships with students at JMU, EMU, and public school STEM programs allow for boundless experimentation and innovation.  Environmental engineering has brought inventions from a self-heated outdoor shower to an industrial-sized salad spinner that turns lettuce grown on the premises into a product that can be delivered to local restaurants.  Vine & Fig offers summer internships and practicums for students looking to become more involved.

Overall, Vine & Fig serves as an example of using the systems approach to social work to reach the goal of lifting populations that are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.

“We need to listen to those voices that aren’t being heard in our world,” said Benevento.  “We’re hearing them say we need to live differently in the United States.  We need to change policies.  We need to change our affluence and our lifestyles… this is a response to the voices of people in struggle and oppression around the world.”








Gus Bus puts early education preparedness on wheels

“Indeed, it is widely reckoned that, in modern societies, ‘literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community’” -UNESCO (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12).

Preparing for Kindergarten brings a flurry of activity, from gathering new pencils to learning the way home from the bus stop.   But when the first day comes around, some children are underprepared in a less visible way: basic literacy skills.

In 2004, a group of elementary education professionals led by Pat Kennedy recognized the need for early literacy development in Harrisonburg-Rockingham and Page County.  50% of kindergartners, coming from homes which lacked books or spoke languages other than English, began their education without a foundation of the language their lessons would be taught in.  This could potentially set half of the area’s student population behind their English-speaking, literate peers for years to come.  Kennedy and the educators decided to address the problem without ever sending families to a library- they would instead mobilize and bring a library to them.

 The Reading Road Show, dubbed the Gus Bus, makes early learning convenient for families with young children by traveling to neighborhoods with the highest need as far as Stanley in Page County.  Students served by the bus frequently receive free/reduced lunch and speak English as a second language.
“Children are able to check out books and read with volunteers on the bus,” said Program Coordinator Jolynne Bartley.  “Neighborhood enrichment reinforces the importance of reading and aims to foster a lifelong love of learning.”

Other programs under the Reading Road Show include free tutoring and STEAM-focused after school care at Spotswood and Stone Spring Elementary Schools.

“STEAM allows children the opportunity to problem solve, be creative, work together, and foster academic language using a hands-on approach,” said Bartley.

The Virginia Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center provides a grant that funds the Gus Bus.  Community partners including Second Home, the Boys and Girls Club, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and Massanutten Regional Library also support the Road Show.

As for staff, nearly all tutors are student volunteers who commit for a semester or more.

“Being a trusted and caring place for children to learn within the community is so important to our staff,” said Bartley. “JMU student volunteers play a pivotal role in the success of the Gus Bus.”

The program has now been on the road for 13 years and become a beloved part of local communities.  In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama awarded the Reading Road Show one of 12 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Bartley hopes that as success continues, services begin to reach further.

“Ideally, we would like to have more Gus Bus mobile literacy vehicles that will allow the program to grow,” said Bartley.


Social Services Assistant Director strengthens families in Shenandoah County

Social Work faculty at JMU usually work in the field before they begin teaching and often stay active in the community when they become professors.  Instructor Beth Oliff serves as Assistant Director for the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services, an agency she has worked with since 1997.

Oliff attended Virginia Commonwealth University as an undergraduate and then began practicing in Shenandoah County .  While moving through roles in Adult Protective Services, foster care, Child Protective Services, and Prevention Supervision, she completed her MSW and LCSW degrees.  Now, Oliff works as Assistant Director for the agency.

“It’s the hardest, most rewarding work there is,” said Oliff.

As Assistant Director, Oliff writes grants, attends court meetings, collaborates with multidisciplinary professionals, and collects data among other administrative and interpersonal tasks.  Staff oversight is also a major part of her position.

“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the agency staff working hard with and for the families of Shenandoah County,” said Oliff.  “When I see a family achieve their goals; when we can avoid traumatizing a child by removing them from their family; when I see a worker truly engaging.”

A position in social services can occasionally lead to burnout due to the demanding nature of the work.  Oliff lists authenticity, strong communication skills, engagement, commitment, and reliability as necessary qualities.  Social workers must also practice self-care and remain objective, she said.

“You have to believe in families and their ability to change,” said Oliff.

Social Services may have a stigma of removing children from their homes, but the social workers of Shenandoah County employ a strengths perspective.  Their work aims to solve problems within the family system and avoid separation.  First, Social Services turns to legal investigations, counseling services, psychiatric treatment, and school personnel in attempt to improve conditions within the home.

“We believe families can make positive changes and protect their children,” said Oliff.  “They are experts on their needs.  Every family and person has strengths.”

Oliff has found that teaching at JMU and working in the field compliment one another.

“I learn from my students and the material and bring it back,” she said.  “I’m constantly seeking out current and relevant material for my students and am able to share those with my staff.”