SEEDS Harvest Dinner: the essence of the community

After spending 11 years with Seeds, Tasha McMillan emcees the dinner by introducing other important Seeds members and telling her own story about growing up with Seeds. (Staff photo by Taylor Mabrey)

Jazz music floated through the air. The Durham Pavilion was illuminated by beautiful string lights. It was time for the annual SEEDS Harvest Dinner, and Durham had shown up for it.

Everyone throws around the buzzword community. It is currency in the nonprofit world and education system alike. The Harvest Dinner exemplified thatSEEDS has captured that elusive community. From the band to the food to cause, the event was pure Durham.

A group of men and women check out the amazing trips up for auction, such as trips to Ireland, Alaska and more.

South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces, Inc. was founded in 1994 but most know it as SEEDS- a 2-acre urban garden and cooking classroom nonprofit that seeks to educate children to “respect life, the earth and each other through growing, cooking and sharing food.”

They hope to achieve this goal through after-school programs where youth can garden, cook, and learn about the earth and themselves along the way.

The evening began with appetizers under the open-air pavilion, giving the guests time to mingle and look at silent auction items while enjoying local craft food and beverages. The Shaquim Muldrow Trio, a local Durham band, were setting the mood with popping string melodies. The place was absolutely buzzing with excitement.

From the beginning, it was clear that this night was not only a benefit fundraiser, but also a celebration as well.

Shane Walden has been on the SEEDS Board of Directors for about three months. Walden is originally from Illinois but moved to Durham a few years ago. Walden has a background in architecture consulting and currently works for Blue Cross Blue Shield NC.

The decorations at the event were simple and quaint, adding homeliness to the tables.

For Walden, SEEDS is so special because the youth actually wanted to be there- so much so that they would come back on the weekends to work in the garden, even when they had been there all week.

“When I was a kid, I definitely didn’t want to weed on the weekends,” he said. “But for whatever reason, they can’t get enough of SEEDS.”

Walden has seen Durham change but hopes that it won’t lose its charm. The 27-story high rise that is going up in downtown Durham is a departure from a more simplistic time and is a reflection of some of the gentrification going on in the city, he said.

Scott Kline, Shane’s partner, moved to Durham about five years ago and could not stop talking about his love of Durham and the surprise of loving it.

“If you had told me I would be living in North Carolina, I would have said you’re crazy,” he said.

They both are passionate about volunteering, which is telling of the hands on leadership at SEEDS.

The amazing chicken and waffles were also a topic of conversation.

Dinner time brought the goods. You wanted pork barbeque on a buttermilk biscuit with pickled peach jam? Maybelle’s Biscuits & BBQ served it up. How about smoked mushroom salad with apple, chocolate, and grits from Piedmont? The bold mix of flavors somehow came together melodiously. And the cheese? Boxcarr Handmade Cheese is more than delicious; it’s local.

After being able to mingle with others, guests were able to walk around and choose their dinner from the vendors that were present.

The Boxcarr cheese table was manned by Austin Genke, co-founder and head of sales. Genke founded the company with his sister Samantha 11 years ago. Their products are sold in Durham and around the country.

They chose to be a food sponsor at the event because they “believe in promoting sustainable farming,” said Genke. Of course they wanted visibility, but it was more than that. Boxcarr was at the SEEDS dinner because they believe what the organization is working for is valuable, Genke said.

Guests were able to seat themselves, offering freedom in choosing with whom they would enjoy the evening. The long white tables were beautiful and facilitated conversation over bouquets of freshly cut flowers. Dan Jewell and his wife Chris are a couple that have been with SEEDS since the very beginning. While picking at hors d’oeuvres, Dan and Chris Jewell shared their SEEDS story.

A group of men and women check out the amazing trips up for auction, such as trips to Ireland, Alaska and more.

One of Dan’s partners was a founding board member  and remembers when SEEDS was located in the bottom floor of  his firm, Coulter Jewell Thames. Back then, lawnmowers were housed in the space. Once Dan and his associates realized this equipment was being house in a space without sprinklers, they knew “Seeds needed to expand.”

“Their mission has grown, matured over time,” Dan Jewell said.

SEEDS has always had a passion for education and a love of the community. Dan pointed out one of the Seeds’ projects behind the Pavilion, the “Garden of Eatin’,” a free-pick, public edible garden created in 2013. His firm was integral in building Seeds’ new campus, a dynamic building on the two acre property that is all for the SEEDlings.

Dan Jewell is not a stranger to expansion. His firm developed the American Tobacco campus. They have their hand in a lot of revamping of durham, now focusing on mill adaptive reuse programs.

Board of Directors member Shane Walden and his partner Scott Kline talk with other dinner attendees about the hors d’oeuvres. (Staff photo by Taylor Mabry)

Across from Dan and Chris sat another couple with personal ties to SEEDS. Dan and Meredith Altieri moved from Manhattan two years ago but found Seeds long before that through FarmAid, where Seeds had a booth.

Dan Altieri loved the idea from the very beginning, and it was important for him to seek out the organization when they moved here.

SEEDS allows people of any age to develop their talents and passions- Meredith Altieri volunteers in the garden while her husband works in the kitchen.

He worked in the restaurant business for a long time and has always been passionate about food. At SEEDS, Dan Altieri gets to pretty much make whatever he wants with the kids, and hopefully pass on that passion for food to them.

“It’s all about storytelling- how the food goes from the garden to the kitchen to their plate,” Dan said.

Meredith Altieri went to Duke University for undergrad and law school and remembers volunteering as SEEDS. When they returned here, she was able to find a community within Seeds, especially with Tasha McMillan, Seeds graduate and the emcee for the night.

Everyone knows Tasha. She floats around the room, smiling and hugging old friends. She opened up programming for the night and introduced herself, saying, “I am wonderful, I sing, I am fabulous.”

In Tasha’s mind, she would not be who she is today without SEEDS.

“They’re my family,” she said.

Tasha grew up in Durham and has been involved with SEEDS for 11 years. She was part of the Durham Inner-City Gardeners (DIG) programs. DIG served students aged 14-18 and gave them a garden to work in and skills to cultivate food in the food desert where Seeds is located.

SEEDS gives kids the power to produce food for themselves and find food security. It makes youth conscious about what they are eating and how that food is produced. SEEDS allows kids to invest in their community in a tangible way, Tasha said.

What’s more, SEEDS gives youth the power to know what is going on in Durham and have an impact on- from gentrification to food distribution inequalities.

DIG was discontinued two years ago, but Tasha is passionate about bringing the program back.

“DIG was the most impactful thing I’ve done in my life,” she said. When she was a DIG advisor after she had aged out of the program herself, she brought in resume experts and sex-education professionals to lead workshops.

DIG also provided Tasha with a community of mentors and friends and a pace to call home. To her delight, Executive Director Jeff Holloway announced during his part of the program that DIG is making a comeback in the spring.

Two SEEDS students took the stage to speak to what makes their favorite place to go after school so special. Kindergartener Joshua Di Bonna, accompanied by his mother Lanya Shapiro, started Seeds daily this year after going to a summer camp. Josh opened up his testimony by wishing the audience, “Happy Seeds Day,” and, boy, was it cute.

Josh has learned about gardening and how to treat the earth.

“Yeah, but you have to be very careful with plants and water them and don’t harm them,” he said. “And sometimes I want to pick the lettuce but sometimes I pick the whole lettuce.”

His mom talked about what an impact SEEDS had on her son.

“He started with the summer camp and is now immersed in the SEEDS community,” she said. From cooking to gardening, she added, Josh is learning important skills and about himself as a person.

Lanya went on to talk about how amazing the kids are and attributed it largely to one element : the staff. “How are these kids so wonderful? Partly because the staff is so wonderful,” she said.

The crowd got a look at just how hands on the SEEDS staff is when Jeff Holloway came on stage.

Holloway is relatively new to  SEEDS, but you would never know. He jumped into his role in early August and seemingly never looked back. His bold fuchsia pants made him easy to spot as checked on guests, vendors, and the musicians. His kind and gentle, yet dynamic personality just makes you want to get to know him. What really stood out about Jeff was his comfort with the Seeds youth.

Adrian Platt, another SEEDlings after-school student, was escorted to the stage by Jeff and it was clear they had a personal relationship. Jeff introduced Adrian as the ideal SEEDlings student- attentive, compassionate, and eager to learn.

Adrian, 9, lives directly across from SEEDS on Gilbert Street, hitting home the value of having an urban farm in this community. “I love from the dig to the plant,” Adrian said. Per Jeff’s request, Josh listed the plants he could identify, which was a list longer than most of the adults in the room could produce.

“Adrian leads with compassion- he doesn’t get angry at the other kids, just wants to help them,” Jeff said.

Adrian plans on being a gardener when he is older, all because of SEEDS. “I want to help more people,” he said.

Jeff took over and outlined the goals for SEEDS in the future, but not without acknowledging his role at Seeds and in the community. “I am another white man coming into a community that I did not grow up in,” he said.

Jeff largely attributed the success of connecting with the students to Chef Educator Sumi Dutta who leads cooking classes everyday with a unique passion. The elementary kids are in the garden or in the kitchen after school everyday, and the “chef educator has led a passion for food, story-telling with food,” Jeff said.

SEEDS is undergoing a giant revitalization. Jeff talked about their facility, which “a kitchen and a multipurpose room with communal tables where young people share meals they make using food they grow in the garden.”

Their outdoor space holds outdoor classrooms, cooking areas, a chicken coop, a greenhouse, and acres of gardens.

Jeff emphasized the reason behind SEEDS. The organization seeks to forge new educational pathways in the garden, from learning about the basic and complex skills of life to instilling leadership qualities at a young age- all exemplified in Josh and Adrian.

Jeff and Seeds believes in holistic learning based in the life of the garden. Currently, SEEDS is developing 180 days of curriculum for Durham Public Schools. Seeds wants to be a resource for working outside the classroom. More to the point, he said, “We want to be a resource in the community.”

He was on a role. Passion for these youth and the work SEEDS does to serve them exuded from Jeff. Falling in line with Tasha’s view of SEEDS as an advocate and mobilization for action, Jeff explained their partnership with organizations like Opportunities for Youth to work in favor of food security and in general, youth. “Working to build coalition against major changes that are going on in Durham,” he said.

The big kicker was the announcement that DIG is coming back in the spring. Jeff talked about his desires to build back the relationship between NCCU and SEEDS in relation to DIG. Cheers audibly went up around the room, especially from Tasha.

Tasha took back the mic to close out the night and the silent auction, and the crowd hushed as she told her story of SEEDSs.

“I was a diamond in the rough,” she said. “I was a diamond in the rough, and SEEDS found me. The thing that we’re lacking in the world is community. If you come to seeds you’ll get a true understanding of community.”

“When you invest in SEEDS you invest in a life- just like the life cycle, the water the dirt the seeds,” Tasha said.

As for Durham, she sees the beauty of her home and wants to continue to lift up her community. She realized while talking to someone out of town just how special Durham is.

“Durham is so diverse and amazing and it’s changing and I want to be a part of that,” she said. “I had to take a step back and start investing.”

She posed her relationship with Durham in this way: “It’s not like a loveless marriage- I’m happy to be here!”

Tasha has served for two years as co-director, but made it clear she’s looking to make it a permanent gig. “I’m coming for your job in a couple years,” she told Jeff laughingly, and because of her passion for  SEEDS, it may not have been a joke.

SEEDS receives funding from personal donations, grants, in-kind donations, and events like the Harvest Dinner. They partner with many North Carolina organizations but are always looking for more. Their programs, from the Community Harvest to Chicken Brigade, are driven by volunteer aid.

The evening wrapped up with a donation ask. Guests mingled and chatted, some discussing what they had gotten in the silent auction. Shane and Scott won not one, but two trips to Italy.

As guests left, they were presented with a small dill plant as a token of appreciation for attending. But by looking around at all the smiling faces, it’s a safe bet no one needed to be thanked at all.