9 mins

The Community Ecology Institute is a nonprofit based in MarylandTheir mission is to cultivate communities where people and nature thrive together. Through their many programs, they work at the intersection of environment, education, equity and health. They get people outside, into their natural environment, wherever they live, learn, work or play. 

Spending time in nature benefits our mental health as well as our physical health. And as Chiara D’Amore, PhD. explains, having direct and personal experiences with the natural world is also a gateway to caring more about it.

Chiara is the founder of the Community Ecology Institute, now based at Freetown Farm. I was blown away by her passion, care and knowledge about the environment. She brings a lifetime of resources to create a space for community healing and a better future for generations to come. 

You’ve been running the Community Ecology Institute for 6 years and moved into Freetown Farm in 2019. Tell me how this changed the Institute’s activity.

Before Freetown Farm, we had two flagship programs: Columbia Families in Nature and Roots & Wings. The challenge was that we always ran these programs on other people’s properties. Shifting to the farm has allowed us to take root in the community, and now we can spread our branches and reach more people. 

Our impact is more substantial since we now steward our own piece of land. 

The farm was owned by Mr. Shaw, who organically farmed it for 40 years. When he saw that townhouses were being developed next to the farm, he started looking for someone who would purchase it and protect it from housing development. We got an email asking if we were interested in buying the farm. When I went to visit it, I fell in love with it. 

When we acquired the farm, it was in a state of disrepair. There was tremendous work to transform this personal asset into a community resource. Freetown Farm wouldn’t be what it is today without well over a thousand volunteers who’ve helped us. 

Then, 6 months into owning the farm, Covid-19 hit. Since our activities are all outside, we became one of the few places where you could still show up and combat the feeling of isolation and feel connected to community. 

We became like a safe haven during a difficult time, which has helped us to flourish. And that’s been the most incredible thing to witness. Many collaborations have emerged from the property, making it a truly diverse place of common ground in a way that is pretty unusual. 

We get people across lifespans, and all walks of life, working together to steward the land. We have a garden stewarded by the local branch of the NAACP, a garden stewarded by the local domestic violence recovery center, a garden stewarded by a nonprofit that supports women of color entrepreneurs; we’ve had 36 scout projects … It’s just this really incredible coming together. 


It’s fascinating to see that creating a welcoming space actually opens the possibility for people from so many backgrounds to come together. Could you tell me more about the different programs that you run?

Our first program is a Community of Families in Nature (CFIN). This program was the result of my doctoral research. I wanted to see what would happen if you gave families the chance to experience the three things that research shows as the “magic wand”, if you will, to get people to care about and take care of the environment. 

These three significant life experiences are. The first is spending time outside in nature is true for all people, but the more time you have when young, the better. 

Then, having a role model helps you see nature as something to be valued, appreciated, and tended. For example, being taught ethics of appreciation and care by identifying plants or picking up litter.

Lastly, having the chance to make a difference. It can be as simple as doing a stream clean-up, planting trees, or creating a community garden.

I intentionally designed our family nature club to offer those three life experiences. I didn’t know if anyone would show up to our weekly events. But they really did, and it was such a success that the CFIN program became the genesis of the Community Ecology Institute.

And now, we are in our 8th year of that program (6th year of CEI), and a core group of original CFIN families are still participating! My children found some of their best friends during this program, and they are literally growing up together.

Our second program is the Roots & Wings Learning Community, where we offer supplemental education for homeschooled children. It started out as a two-day-a-week program with 20 kids. We are in our 5th year with the program, which runs 4 days a week from Freetown Farm with 212 class seats available. We teach STEM+Art, where kids learn how to grow and cook with produce, tend the land and support our community, and create practical and beautiful art projects.

In the fall of 2020, when schools where we are based, were still virtual due to Covid, we started our high school and college internship program. e now call it the Green SEEDS (service, experiential education, design and sustainability) Internship Program. During that first year, the internship program became a great way for us to get steady help at the farm and for these students to feel connected during a really unsettling time. They also learned new skills that helped them think about the next steps on their academic and professional paths. 

We also have neurodiverse high school students coming to the farm two to four days a week during the school day. Occupational therapy masters and doctoral students from a local university come to work with these students. So the farm has become a grounding space for high school and college students to come together for distinct but mutual benefits. The high school students are getting transferable job skills, and occupational therapy students get a chance to practice what they learn in class by supporting them. We get a lot done together, and it’s really joyful. The internship program is now in its third year, and we keep evolving it as the world keeps changing under everyone’s feet, so it meets our collective needs.

Our newest program is called Nourishing Gardens. This program is about transforming lawns into ecologically beneficial food-growing gardens. It’s about growing food but doing it in a way that enhances biodiversity and addresses climate change. 

Our focus this year has been on getting gardens in schools, especially Title 1 schools.* We’ve helped create gardens in 14 schools this year and trained 36 adults on how to design, install and maintain Nourishing Gardens. It’s a green-collar job skills development program for adults where we take transformative action by replacing lawns with beautiful abundant spaces. 

*Title 1 schools designate schools where a significant number of students are from lower-income families. 

Vegetable produce from Freetown Farm - a rainbow-coloured display of various types of red tomatoes and red peppers and chiles, yellow squash, tomatoes and flowers, green peppers, chiles and courgettes, purple tomatoes, eggplants and flowers on a wooden table with the caption Freetown Farm

Vegetable Garden produce from Freetown Farm – Image courtesy of The Community Ecology Institute

I’ve never really thought about turning lawns into gardens! What a powerful idea!

Yes, lawns in the US are the largest irrigated crop. The environmental impact of watering, fertilizing, and mowing is tremendous. If you transition a portion of your lawn into a garden, you are already making a difference. One of my favorite types of nourishing gardens is herb gardens. They can be used for cooking and are also wonderful for many pollinators. 

That makes a lot of sense. Now I’m starting to wonder, why do we have lawns in the first place?

It’s fascinating to know the history. The idea of the lawn is actually a colonial legacy from Europe. Wealthy landowners who had enough space and resources started wanting to flaunt having land that did not need to be productive. But lawns required tremendous labor to be manicured for show. This status symbol then came to America (and much of the world), bringing substantial environmental impacts. 

It really is. I can see how passionate you are about the work you do. Could you share your personal connection with ecology?  

When I was young, my family moved every year until I was in fourth grade. I am a pretty introverted person, and adapting to new friends, a new school, and a new home every year was challenging. What was consistent was the outdoors. There were trees and the sky everywhere we went outside the door. Nature was my steady companion, and I spent much of my time outside school, free playing outside.

In high school, my grandmother got sick and died. In the adjacent hospital room, a young man, Joe, had been hit by a drunk driver. He was fighting for his life. My mom, a wonderful, healing human being, became very close with Joe’s parents. Fortunately, Joe was able to be released, but they lived in a small town with no hospitals or recovery services, so they couldn’t fully support him there in learning how to walk and talk again. 

So he came to live with my family for several years. Before his accident, Joe had been the founder of the Sierra Club chapter at his college and was a staunch environmental activist. I learned a lot living with Joe.

As he got better, we went to community college together. He wanted to start an environmental club but still had some healing to do to take on the responsibility. So we co-founded it together, and again, I learned a lot. I pivoted my love for nature to environmental activism. 

I transferred to a four-year college, and the day I left for school, Joe took his life. His passing was really traumatic for me. And it solidified my commitment to carrying forward his passion for taking care of the environment. 

All of my degrees are in the environmental field. After earning my Masters in Environmental Science and Engineering, I worked as an environmental consultant for 13 years. When I became a Mom, I couldn’t continue commuting anymore to work 60-hour weeks and never go outside, be barefoot and play. I needed to find a way to create a whole life where my vocation had more heart and my commitment to being present as a mom could find harmony with my work.

I went back to school for my doctorate with the hope that I could forge my own path. Now my son is 12, and my daughter is 9, and I feel like I’ve done that. 

It has been a challenging and demanding journey, but it’s also been purposeful and passion-driven. It’s been an adventure, and I’m so grateful for the huge amount of people who have shown up to be a part of it. 

Thank you for sharing with such vulnerability Chiara. What do you see as being the most important thing about the Community Ecology Institute? 

To be honest, what I do is 75% out of love and 25% out of fear. When I was doing my master’s degree, the climate modelling we were doing at the time suggested that we might start feeling the effects of climate change in 2100. 

I really started noticing it in 2010. That’s 90 years ahead of “schedule”, and I worry about it a lot. 

Although 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions, I believe that it’s crucial that people feel like there is something that they can do. Building nourishing gardens, coming out in the community and having relationships outside of our contexts of school, faith or neighborhood, learning about reciprocity with the natural world – that’s as close we can get to being on a healthier, more resilient path on a local level. 

Richard Louv said that if you want to create a different future, you need to create a story about it that people want to be part of. Beautiful gardens, delicious food, butterflies and birds in flight, children playing together from all walks of life, and neighbors are helping each other. That’s a story I want to be a part of. 

If we want a better future, we get busy creating conditions where it can grow. 

Indeed! And what has been the impact you’ve witnessed so far on the community you work with?

I want to talk about the mental health impacts. I recently heard a woman in the NAACP garden. She was leading the harvest and casually said, “We’re here for the food, but make no mistake, this is most importantly where I come for my mental health”. She’s a leader in our community. Hearing her share that felt really important to me because all the research backs up this anecdote. Even if you can simply see nature, and you are not even outside, there is an immediate benefit to your mental and physical health. With the global health crisis with Covid-19, I believe that the health benefits of our work may be the most significant, most immediate impact. 

It’s become part of our mission statement – we want people and nature to thrive together. If nature is not thriving, we cannot thrive as people. And it’s happening at Freetown Farm in really beautiful ways.


That’s so important. So what are your plans for the future? 

This question is very exciting and timely! On Friday, we got the construction permit to renovate the barn at the farm into our Community Engagement Center. So far, we haven’t had any indoor amenities at all. 

If you need the bathroom, we only have porta-potties. You cannot get a cup of water. You cannot sit inside to get warm and dry off if it’s raining. And despite that, incredibly, we’ve welcomed over 3,000 different people to the property in the last three years, who knew we could operate so fully without such basic amenities. 

Today we are at 75% of our fundraising goal. Our hope and dream is that, as the cold weather settles in, the community center will be able to allow our experiential education programming to run all year round. This will increase our ability to generate revenue. I’m very excited, and I know this will be transformative. Our staff will have offices, and I won’t be talking to people from my couch. 

So our next big step is building a community engagement center from which we can support the community year-round and in all weather.

At The Inspirer, we consider everyone we interview to be inspiring, so tell me, Chiara, who inspires you?

Firstly, I’m tremendously inspired by the community I work with. I am blown away by just about every single person. Also, I think about Greta Thunberg. She has changed the entire conversation around climate action. She’s probably made the biggest impact of anybody I can think of in the last decade. I brought my children to see her in DC. It was a direct opportunity to see how anybody can decide to take a stand and how powerful that is. I’m deeply grateful to her. 


How to find and support the Community Ecology Institute?

Check out their website communityecologyinstitute.org, and follow them on their social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.