For Ky’lexius Gwynn, a senior education major at Guilford College, April 2022 started out on a high note. Then things went tragically downhill fast. And like so many college students living through this troubled era, the young changemaker from Reidsville, N.C., had to learn to cope—and to prevail.

The high note was the Sullivan Foundation’s Spring Ignite Retreat, held April 1-3 in Staunton, Va. There, Gwynn won second place and $200 in a pitch competition for her project called Here We Grow Healthy, an on-campus community garden to serve underprivileged communities in the Greensboro, N.C. region. As she made her pitch to her fellow retreat attendees, Gwynn felt truly seen and heard—and motivated to move forward with her plans. She met new friends and potential collaborators. And she returned home with renewed faith in her own changemaking gifts.

Then, just a few weeks later, on April 25, she lost a dear friend and fellow nature lover, Ahmad Brewington. His death made her question everything and plunged her into depression.

Months later, thanks to support from her mother, her family and friends, as well as a campus mental health counselor, the painful loss has ultimately bolstered her resolve to make a difference—and to honor her late friend—with the Here We Grow Healthy project. Now, she said, she’s committed to approaching farming as “my form of activism because it’s a tool for liberation.”

A Passion for Food
Gwynn has always had a passion for food. When she was a child, she loved her kitchen play sets. “My mom used to play ‘restaurant’ with me all of the time, and I even went to career day dressed as a tiny chef, proclaiming to be the ‘First Youngest Professional Chef in the World.’ Then they came out with ‘MasterChef Junior’ [on Fox]. Mom is also a baker and has taught me how to make a meal out of almost anything around me.”

As a student at Reidsville High School, Gwynn took part in another pitch competition and wrote a grant proposal to buy a greenhouse for the campus. Her team won, but once the greenhouse was purchased, the project stalled. “Because no one else was actually interested in gardening and taking on the responsibility, I wasn’t able to get it built and going before I graduated,” she recalled.

But her love of food and cooking never waned. “Not only do I cook to eat, I cook with passion as a way of bringing the community together,” she said. “Some of my favorite childhood memories were at family cookouts or baking in the kitchen with my grandmother.”

Related: Ignite Retreat attendee Hebron Mekuria develops business plan to bring children’s books to her native Ethiopia

Gwynn grew up shopping at “the average grocery stores” like Food Lion and Lowes Foods. Then she discovered Whole Foods, Sprouts and The Fresh Market. Their meats and produce were fresher and higher in quality—albeit more expensive. “It took me being in college, having to buy my own groceries for me, to realize that there could be a higher quality of food than I had been eating. Not only had I been buying higher-quality produce, I learned about the farm on my college’s campus and how they provided the majority of the vegetables we eat in our cafeteria.”

Instead of buying veggies from the big-box retailers and distributors, Guilford College, Gwynn realized, “could just have our farmer drive it over to the cafeteria in his golf cart.”

“I fell in love with this idea of ‘farm-to-table’ and decided to commit to working with the farm on my campus,” she said. “Through working with them, I learned that they not only provide food to our campus, but they also have a CSA [community sustained agriculture] program and donate to local immigrant and refugee communities for free!”

After wrapping up her minor in community studies, Gwynn was inspired by Guilford’s farm to add a second minor: sustainable food systems. “The majority of the community service that I do now is food-related,” she said.

Ky’lexius Gwynn spent this summer working as an intern at the PDY&F Community Garden in Greensboro, N.C.

Gardening for Mental Health
As an advocate for food security, Gwynn saw that Guilford College’s farm fulfills a need for both the campus and the community. But what if she could help her fellow students—and local people in need—work together, dig their hands into the dirt and grow their own food? “I had been thinking about starting a community garden for years, but it wasn’t until I was at the Ignite Retreat, surrounded by other innovative minds and being encouraged to speak about my idea, that I actually considered turning it into a real thing,” she recalled.

That’s when the seed for Here We Grow Healthy began to take root. Gwynn knew about an “overgrown area” on the Guilford campus that could be transformed into a functioning community garden. But, when Gwynn is finished, it will be more than that. It will also serve as both a sanctuary and a therapeutic workspace for her fellow students coping with mental health issues, an increasingly common problem on college campuses nationwide.

After Ahmad died, Gwynn sought help from Guilford’s counseling center. The counselor, she said, “gave me the space to vent and cope as we planted flowers during a mental health event dedicated to my friend.” When Gwynn mentioned that she wanted to create a memorial piece for Ahmad in the garden, the counselor told her about horticultural therapy—using gardening and plant-based activities to improve mental and physical health. “This is exactly how I would be able to get students involved with this [garden],” Gwynn said. “What better way?”

The spring semester was nearly over by that point, so Gwynn plans to launch her project in the fall. Meanwhile, she has been interning for the summer at the PDY&F Community Garden in Greensboro, “growing my knowledge of plant types, growing seasons, composting, food distribution and more. I’m more confident in my ability to take care of a garden, and I’ve seen firsthand how a green space can bring people of all walks of life together. The biggest steps that I will have to take next are getting the idea out there for people to be a part of and also finding a way to fund my idea.”

Along with well-known staples like snap peas, Gwynn wants to grow more exotic produce from around the globe.

Growing Culturally Appropriate Foods
Meanwhile, Gwynn continues working to clean up the area that will serve as her community garden. “We’re still in the very early stages, and it seems the more we uncover in the area, the more ideas we have about the space!” she said.

For one thing, she wants to focus on growing “culturally appropriate” foods. “So what I mean by [that] is simply a wider range of fruits and vegetables that come from around the globe instead of your typical red tomato, orange carrot, yellow corn, etc.” she said. “Since attending Guilford, I’ve discovered vegetables like Swiss chard, bok choy, African eggplant, purple potatoes and even purple carrots with yellow insides!”

Related: Shayla Roberts-Long: Using your power to create accountability for climate change

After all, students from around the world attend Guilford College, while Greensboro has become home to numerous refugees and immigrants. “Having food that is familiar to them may help them feel more at home or at least more settled in, knowing that someone cares about their culture,” Gwynn said. “Just because the food is free for them does not mean they shouldn’t have a say in what they eat.”

In her summer internship at PDY&F, Gwynn has learned how to grow produce that most Americans have never heard of, like gita yardlong beans and bitter melons. “On campus, I hope to grow things like callaloo, Chinese leeks, kabocha, ginger and different berry trees, but I also want to leave space for students’ ideas,” she said.

Ky’lexius Gwynn presents her idea for Here We Grow Healthy at the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat.

Looking Toward the Future
Gwynn isn’t quite sure about her career plans right now, but she’s already closing in on one major goal: She will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She’s thinking about applying for the FoodCorps program and the Peace Corps after graduating. “I’m very interested in how the body reacts to one’s diet and would love to find a program that teaches me how to help myself and others nourish and heal our bodies,” she said.

She said she might even launch her own nonprofit “that teaches underprivileged communities the importance of small-scale farming, food security and food health. But who knows? My degree is in education, so I would also love to work at a Montessori school at some point in my life.”

Gwynn has time to figure all that out. Meanwhile, Here We Grow Healthy will keep her busy when she’s not buried in the books. And she has the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat to thank for it.

“The Ignite Retreat really helped me to get serious about the idea,” she said. “I had to really think on the fly and push the idea of a community garden during the pitch contest to people I never met. It surprised me when people actually stood there listening to me, and it made me want to dive deeper into my passion for food security. I don’t usually have many people my age take my ideas seriously or try to support me, so, when I won second place in the pitching contest, I was totally surprised. People actually cared.”

“Being in a space with people who supported me and were equally passionate about their own ideas encouraged me to believe in myself,” Gwynn added. “The Ignite Retreat introduced me to new friends and potential collaborators in the future. Sometimes I lose faith in myself and get really overwhelmed because I have so many ideas, and it seems like I’m the only one around me thinking the way that I do. But being at the retreat, I met other people like me who are driven to reach their goals, no matter how big or how small. The experience gave me motivation, friends, smart ideas and the confidence to make Here We Grow Healthy a real thing.”

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