Andresha Mcphaul likes to get her hands dirty.
The 15-year-old gets dropped off three times a week at SEEDS, a community garden located at 706 Gilbert St. in central Durham that advocates sustainability and food security. She works with a team of crew members to harvest, weigh and prepare the garden’s produce – including okra, tomatoes, eggplants, squash, zucchini and peppers – for Durham Farmers’ Market the next day.
“I get to learn more about where my food comes from, how to plant my own food, who the food goes to, and why I should eat healthier,” Andresha said.
Andresha has been involved with SEEDS, or South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces, Inc., since she was 5 years old. At the time, her grandmother encouraged Andresha and her sister, Nilisha, to get off the couch at home and volunteer at the community garden instead. They spent so much time at SEEDS that the organization leaders decided to create SEEDlings, a program designed to teach first through fifth graders about gardening and nature.
In middle school, Andresha continued to volunteer at the community garden. Now a junior at Northern High School, Andresha serves as a crew member for Durham Inner-city Gardeners, or DIG, a program under SEEDS that promotes leadership, business and organic gardening skills in teenagers.
“The people keep me coming back,” she said. “Just knowing that I’m making a difference, you can see it in their faces.”
As a year-round youth leader, Andresha manages group projects and mentors new DIG members who may have questions or need assistance with their garden work.
Kamilah Holtz, a DIG co-coordinator, calls Andresha a “quiet leader” who isn’t afraid to address potential issues or take on responsibility.
“One example is we were working on clearing out some weeds and grass outside of the fence where we have our free-pick [public] garden, and she led that group,” Holtz said. “They got it cleared in, like, one day. She just did a great job keeping everyone focused and on task.”
After 10 years of working at SEEDS, Andresha knows a thing or two about the urban sanctuary–from garden maintenance to community outreach to the history behind the different monuments displayed in the garden.
“I think she brings to SEEDS and the DIG program a wealth of knowledge just because she’s been here for longer than even a lot of the staff,” Holtz said.
But rather than assuming a supervisor role, Andresha acts as a team player within her crew by reaching out to others who need help.
Kolby Clay, a DIG crew member, said Andresha treats everyone like a peer while also teaching them to be better gardeners.
“Sometimes if we plant a plant in the ground, and if we’re not digging the hole right or something, we can ask her, ‘Is this deep enough? Is it too much dirt? Is it too much water?’ Then she’ll come and help us out and try to correct it,” said Clay, who has known Andresha for about two years.
A once shy girl who found it hard to talk to new people, Andresha said she has become more outgoing over the years. She said being a part of SEEDS has taught her not only about teamwork, but also about branching out beyond the Durham community to share the mission of SEEDS.
This summer, Andresha and three other year-round leaders flew to New York to accept the Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award, which recognizes local grassroots organizations dedicated to healthy food access as well as social and economic justice in local communities. The award was presented by WhyHunger, a national organization that fights hunger and poverty.
Shortly after their trip to New York, Andresha’s team visited Tennessee to learn about grassroots building and California to network with other groups that are also passionate about food sustainability and agriculture.
“On the Tennessee trip, it wasn’t all about agriculture – it was more about different nonprofits trying to fight for what they believe in,” Andresha said. “I think I [learned] a lot of organizing techniques and how to do my own grants if I wanted to break off and start my own organization.”
Andresha plans to stick with SEEDS until the end of high school. She hopes to major in agriculture at either North Carolina State University or North Carolina A&T State University.
Without SEEDS or DIG, Andresha said she wouldn’t have realized how much she wanted sustainability to be a part of her career.
“Now that I think about it, if they didn’t make this program, I don’t know what path I would’ve taken,” Andresha said.