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Growing Together: Awardee Jordan Elist Funds Community Garden for LA School

2013 Awardee Jordan Elist in the new Castelar Elementary School community garden

2013 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam awardee Jordan Elist has a vision: community gardens that provide opportunities for hands-on learning. Thanks to Jordan’s efforts, an under-served Los Angeles elementary school now benefits from just such a garden, located on school grounds, next to the playground that serves the school’s 600 students.

As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, Jordan was part of an on-campus organization called Los Angeles Community Impact. Each year, members partner with small businesses or non-profits in LA and offer pro-bono consultation. In Jordan’s sophomore year, his team was paired with the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, which oversees the back-end operations of many of the city’s community gardens and was looking to expand its reach. Jordan and his teammates provided the council with market research and a suggested course of action. By the time the project came to a close, Jordan’s interest in community gardens had been piqued.

Jordan had already used a modest portion of the $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for his project, Save a Bottle, Save a Life, to provide a $5,000 matching grant to the organization Food Forward. By launching a community garden, Jordan saw an opportunity to participate more actively in the philanthropy he was supporting and to use his business skills to benefit the community. “I thought a community garden could be sustainable way of having an impact,” he says.

Jordan began reaching out to Los Angeles land acquisition offices. “I literally called councils district-by-district to see what was available.” Ultimately, the process required an open auction, which kept Jordan from securing a parcel. Undeterred, Jordan decided to reach out to schools directly. One-by-one — with his mother’s help — Jordan began contacting LA schools in lower income areas. Their criteria for evaluating a school’s fitness for the initiative was easy access to water for irrigation and an enthusiastic principle. “We didn’t want to just create this garden and have that be the end of the relationship with the school,” Jordan says.

Ultimately, Castelar Elementary was selected as the site for the new community garden. Jordan spoke to Principal Wing Fung, himself a 1977 graduate of Castelar, and shared his vision for how the school could get involved. Jordan remembers Principal Fung responding to the idea,“I see absolutely no reason why not!” The two communicated almost every day for over two months, leading up to the end of January construction date.

Sign reads: “Our garden represents more than just an urban oasis. It represents a second classroom. It represents community. It represents sustainability and access to healthy food. As important as math, social science, and language art lessons are inside the classroom, reconnecting with nature is equally important outside of the classroom. Just as how this garden would not exist if not for the partnership of various stakeholders, the success of the garden today is largely dependent on the teamwork and collaboration of the Castelar community. Access to nutritious food should be a right, not a privilege, and our garden seeks to make that possible. We welcome you to take in the moment and appreciate all that this garden represents.”

Jordan partnered with the Los Angeles Community Garden Council and EnrichLA, “a community wellness non-profit organization that builds edible gardens in local schools, focusing on low-income and underserved neighborhoods of Los Angeles,” to help with acquiring materials and securing the necessary insurance. Thanks to this partnership, the Castelar garden is now up and running. Principle Fung coordinates with a local professional park ranger to develop curriculum around the community garden and to ensure it meets state educational standards. On February 6th, 2018, the first class was held in the garden at Castelar. Instruction this semester will primarily involve the 5th grade class, which will meet with the ranger once a week and maintain responsibility for planting and harvesting. “It’s really exciting to know the garden is getting put to use on a weekly basis,” Jordan says. He estimates that about 90 students a week will interact directly with the garden.

Jordan is excited to see how Castelar’s garden curriculum will continue to grow and develop. He plans to solicit feedback from the school’s faculty and administration, parents, and students in order to evaluate the project’s success. “At this rate, I think we’ll still be able to open three or four more gardens,” he says. Each garden will also honor philanthropist Helen Diller, the namesake of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, who launched the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards in 2007 in order to encourage philanthropy and leadership among Jewish youth. Jordan adds, “None of this would be possible without the foundation’s support.”

Jordan has been greatly inspired by Helen Diller’s adage, “It’s never too late, too early, or too often to give back and make the world a better place.” Jordan says, “I realized that just because I entered the working world and my schedule is busier, that doesn’t mean that I should lose sight of what’s important beyond work, or the impact you can still make. Just because I’m 23 years old now and have a full-time job, that shouldn’t prevent me from working towards the things that I’m passionate about outside my profession.” Jordan advises other young people that just putting in one or two hours into a project after work each night may not seem like a lot, but the effort adds up. It may take longer to achieve your goal, he says, but “that shouldn’t be a hindrance or barrier preventing you from reaching your vision.”