STONINGTON — Danielle Chesebrough and Susan Cullen stood outside Town Hall recently discussing ways to make Stonington a more sustainable town, something Chesebrough considered a priority when she became first selectman.
They had an idea to build a second community garden in town, but one question remained: Where would it be built?
“Right there,” Chesebrough said, pointing toward an open lawn to the left of Town Hall. “That’s where we’re building the garden.”
Since then, construction of the new community garden has commenced, and thanks to a matching funds grant and the help of a local Eagle Scout, the cost to the town will be minimal.
When Cullen was hired as the town’s director of economic and community development, Chesebrough had a goal of becoming a certified-sustainable town through Sustainable CT.
Sustainable CT is a statewide organization that provides a list of actions municipalities can choose to complete in order to be considered sustainable. One of those actions include having “inclusive and equitable community impacts.”
Cullen quickly began to think of equity projects for the town.
As the COVID-19 pandemic reached its first peak in March and April, grocery store shelves were devoid of certain goods. The importance of local gardening increased, and so did the waiting list at the Stonington Human Services community garden.
“It was important that people had access to be able to grow their own food,” Cullen said.
An opportunity emerged for the town: Not only would a second community garden provide access to fresh food for a number of community members, but it would also be a big step toward Sustainable CT certification.
“I think it’s kind of a big part about making things more sustainable. You’re literally taking up that big lawn that’s not really providing anything and you’re going to have more local food available,” she said.
The garden, and other efforts spurred by town officials, paid off in late October with a Sustainable CT designation achieved by demonstrating significant achievements in nine areas ranging from a thriving local economy and vibrant arts and culture to clean transportation and diverse housing.
“We are thrilled to recognize additional communities that are using the Sustainable CT framework to respond to COVID-19 and build long-term resilience,” said Laura Francis, first selectman of Durham and co-chair of the Sustainable CT Board of Directors. “Supporting local businesses, strengthening food networks, and safeguarding natural spaces for our residents have always been important, but these and other Sustainable CT actions are especially timely right now.”
Only 36% of the state’s communities have earned Sustainable CT certification.
To bring the garden to completion, Cullen, who is also assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 9 of the Boys Scouts of America, then reached out to David Robinson, a long-time Boy Scout and a senior at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School. Robinson decided to build the garden for his Eagle project, which Cullen said is the “culmination of a scouting career.”
“David is such a nice young man. He’s kind and he’s honest. His values exemplify what we want out of the next generation of people in this world. It’s pretty awesome to be able to do this and be his coach,” Cullen said.
Because of the Scouts' involvement, labor costs for the garden were eliminated. Chesebrough guessed the labor would have comprised about 30% of the total costs.
“The labor cost of this would make it substantially more,” she said. “It’s really amazing. It makes it feel like a real community partnership and it’s just unbelievably appreciated.”
The community partnership does not end there. Sustainable CT provided the town with a community match fund, matching any donations by community members dollar-for-dollar up to $5,500. The town has currently raised $2,400 for the fund, which will go towards material costs.
Between the volunteer efforts by Troop 9 and Sustainable CT’s matching funds, Cullen said the cost for the new community garden is about 25% of what it cost to build the garden at Human Services.
“How awesome is that? I don’t think anyone can beat that,” she said.
The new community garden will also be constructed in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Pathways will be wide enough to fit a wheelchair, and raised garden beds will provide easier access to people in wheelchairs or those who have bad backs or knees.
“We’re always working in the town toward more, not only ADA compliance, but just being accessible in a lot of different ways so more people can participate,” Cullen said.
For Cullen, the project is something special. As both a town employee and assistant Scoutmaster, she said she was clocking out of work one day, put on her Boy Scout shirt, walked outside and began volunteering.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment in my life where my personal life and my professional life has collided in such a nice way,” she said.
Cullen has also known Robinson since he was 7 years old. She’s watched him grow and develop as a person, and is proud to see the work he’s doing at Town Hall.
“I’m so excited for him, and I can’t wait at the end for him to be able to stand there and see all that he’s accomplished,” she said.
Chesebrough hopes the garden will be ready for sign-ups later this fall and she looks forward to finding ways to make the town more sustainable.
“The next step is to explore the areas where we have gaps, where we can continue to improve as a community. As part of this, we need input from residents; we welcome new ideas and feedback,” Chesebrough said.