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Returning to Her Roots

When she was young, gardening changed her life. Now she’s sowing seeds of opportunity.

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

When Kaifa Anderson-Hall was growing up in Northeast DC, the National Arboretum was her playground—and safe haven.

“We rode our bicycles in this big back yard,” she says. “We watched tadpoles. It took away the myth some urban kids have that nature is scary.”

Now 48, Anderson-Hall has returned to her roots, as program director of the arboretum’s Washington Youth Garden, one of the nation’s oldest garden-education programs.

How did you get involved with Washington Youth Garden?

When I was in the fifth and sixth grades, I was in the program myself. I remember growing collards and taking them home to cook for my mom and my aunts. It started a lifelong passion for growing food.

What brought you back?

I went to the University of Maryland to study social work and helped to create the Tree of Life charter school in the District. In 2005, I took a sabbatical and entered UDC’s master-gardening program. Through that, I became a volunteer at the garden. I took over when the previous director moved on. It’s brought my two loves together—being outdoors and working with children.

What do the kids get out of gardening?

Respect for life, patience, and that there are always opportunities to start over.

In Trinidad, a DC neighborhood challenged by gang violence, one of our students planted carrots and radishes in her front yard. Her father wanted her to plant in the back, but she insisted on the front yard where everyone could see. Here’s a girl excited about life.

We give each student a Chinese evergreen to take home. One day, there was a frantic knock on the door. It was Frank, a young guy in our program, who begged us to see his plant. He had taken care of it for a year—it had tripled in size. He was so proud. His teacher said it’s had an impact on Frank—some of that nurturing has been transferred to his classmates.

Your license plate says “inspire”?

When these kids get to make pizzas using vegetables they grew, you hear them say, “This is the best day ever!” I love seeing their excitement—and the seeds that are planted in them.

This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.   

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