As a Kiva Zip fellow, one of the best aspects of the job, aside from helping financially excluded and socially impactful entrepreneurs is the inspiring people you meet along the way. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this ‘goodwill’ amongst people is really infectious.
It begins of course with the staff at Kiva HQ, which is right here in San Francisco, but it extends out into the wider community, where on your search for borrowers and trustees, you encounter folks that just feel good to be around.
On this particular day, after a twenty minute train ride south from San Francisco, I was driven the remaining distance by a young employee who spoke sparing but respectfully about the farm we were about to visit. This is a once rural, hilly suburb, dotted with condos, apartment complexes and some larger family homes, typical of modern day urban sprawl. As such, I was somewhat surprised to be greeted by high wire fencing and security posts at the end of a long, winding road.
Once through the checkpoint, we took a wide berth of the ugly concrete behemoth that is the San Francisco County Prison’s San Bruno Complex. A dirt road leads off to the side, flanked momentarily by some tall trees. You come out into open fields of freshly turned earth and long rows of growing vegetables being drenched by sprinkler under the midday sun.
A couple of large greenhouses, a prefabricated office off to the side, and a modified old farm building which houses the kitchen make up the main complex. One immediately gets the sense of a pastoral village setting as folks shuffle in and out of the kitchen, stop for a quick chat here and there or stroll off to the fields on some errand.
With the prison now out of view, one can’t help but imagine what this must have looked like to those first prisoners who were allowed out here on day release to tend the fields, in the early days of The Garden Project
Affording the formerly incarcerated and at-risk youth an opportunity to cultivate healthy life habits, through working with nature and eating healthy, is how their founder, Cathrine Sneed described their mission to me. Participants work on the project’s seven acre vegetable farm. Some even learn to cook and others still are involved in community clean-up and planting activities as part of a wider partnership that includes the Sheriff’s Department, Public Utilities Commission and Police Department, all of San Francisco.
Miracles are being worked here thanks to the vision and selfless devotion of Cathrine and others. Lives are being changed permanently and for the better, one person at a time. Take John for example, who, Cathrine told me, had been shot multiple times, and had the gait to prove it. I saw him shuffle his great frame into the kitchen and later serve me his apple crumble pie with a wide smile. He was one of many personal stories that owed their success to the direct intervention of The Garden Project and one of whom I felt Cathrine was particularly proud.
On this occasion, a meet and greet luncheon, city officials and representatives from various non-profits working on homelessness, nutrition education and all manner of good cause were attending. The crowd were fed an amazing mix of foods and picnicked at tables outside under the searing sun surrounded by a colorful display of recently harvested pumpkins. It was a nice day to be a Kiva Fellow and a good day to meet people.
Take Hari for example. A former Brigadier in the Indian army, he claimed his life as a humanitarian had been directly inspired by Cathrine. Pursuing that dream, he had magically chanced upon a parcel of land in the foothills of the Himalayas for far below market price. Here, his own ‘garden project’ was born, where, with the help of volunteers from all over the world, he continues to grow mangoes, the proceeds of which are used to finance a nearby orphanage. All the while, Hari seemed to be suggesting that if we dream big about doing good, the stars will align in our favor.
Many heroes spoke at the event; everyone from the former city supervisor who had championed the cause of the Garden Project throughout its history to the reformed drug dealer who had turned his life around and dedicated it instead to helping others. He directly attributed his turnaround to Cathrine’s intervention. There was also my brother in Kivaciousness, (and manager), Justin, who spoke passionately, as always, about Kiva Zip and the promise it holds.
When lunch was over, and the speeches were done, we mingled with the other non-profit folk, introduced our respective organizations, exchanged ideas and swapped contact information.
When it was time for a good bye, I was sent on my way with a large cardboard box of beets, broccoli, swiss chard, kale and all manner of leafy green, not forgetting a big cheeky orange pumpkin. Rounding off the day, I rolled home in a sleek, cream colored 1956 Studebaker, driven by none other than the Garden Project’s own business development consultant, a charming man who talked passionately of his passion for restoring vintage cars.
Occasionally, the folks you hope for the most don’t turn out to be the most ideal fit for Kiva Zip. Many participants in The Garden Project's programs may not be ready to take out a business loan just now though we may explore new avenues in the future. Still, such meetings always lead to new networking opportunities, such being the altruism that pervades the non-profit world where people want to help each other.
Indeed, it is these daily encounters with benevolence as much as my key deliverables, which make every day as a Kiva fellow a day well spent. Well, if you happen to be feeling a bit of that Kiva love right now, dear reader, I would suggest you go right ahead and make a loan today, or, if you're feeling a little more adventurous than that, perhaps you ought to consider applying to be a Kiva Fellow yourself.
Go on! You never know where it might lead!
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A native of Ireland, Shane received his bachelors in Marketing and Entrepreneurship in 1993. Relocating to the US shortly thereafter, he has since worked in telemarketing management, community outreach, fundraising, market research and as a volunteer. While challenging and rewarding, these positions helped to augment his primary career aspiration as an actor in the theatre. Getting off the beaten track while travelling in the developing world, he visited outlying tribal regions and poor slums, underfunded orphanages, schools and hospitals. In 2007, he returned to Ireland to study for his Masters in International Peace. Learning about microfinance for the first time, it struck him as a sustainable aid model that favors the empowerment of people over the creation of dependency. Shane is ready to immerse himself wholly in this new adventure and is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve with the distinguished members of the Kiva team and KF22. He hopes to learn a lot from the experience and eventually build a full time career in the service of the greater good. He is particularly animated by small, local businesses that are both financially and environmentally sustainable while enriching the local community.