FoodCorps is honored to present Amarilys with this year’s Alumni Service Leadership Award.
When Amarilys Olivo (NJ ’17) founded a community garden, she decided to call it the “Garden of Worker Bees.” Bees work collaboratively to take care of their community; each bee has its role and contributes to the well-being of the whole. Amarilys wanted to emulate that work ethic to create opportunities for learning, building healthy lifestyles, and connecting with fellow community members.
“I partner with all different organizations,” Amarilys says. “There’s a church next door to the garden with a commercial kitchen, so we can teach the community about dehydration, fermentation, and healthy cooking. The church hosts flea markets on the weekends, so people come through the garden. When they see the garden they are reminded of home and share stories about what foods they ate there.”
Amarilys served with Foodcorps in the community where she grew up, where she attended school and where her family lived through civil unrest in the 1960s. She entered her service with the historical context and experience to meet her students where they were at. Amarilys “was able to empower the schools she was in to see a bigger picture around health and wellness,” says Beth Feehan, FoodCorps NJ State Lead. “[She] continues to forge new paths for the Newark communities she works in.”
Amarilys’ passion for helping her neighbors and students lead healthy lives comes from watching her own family’s struggle with diabetes. She has seen firsthand the toll that diet-related disease can take on a person and their community, and that motivates her to work with students and teachers to change the culture of health within a school.
Amarilys aims to bring her spirit of community and connection to all parts of her life. She served with FoodCorps for two years at the Greater Newark Conservancy, which promotes environmental stewardship to improve the quality of life in New Jersey’s Urban Communities. Since then she has continued to be deeply involved with building food access and education opportunities in Newark, New Jersey. She wears many hats: as co-founder of Newark Community Food Systems (a resource hub for community gardeners); board member for Slow Food Northern NJ; and a second-year delegate at Terra Madre, an international gathering of food systems leaders.
Amarilys’ primary role is serving as a Green Energy / Urban Agriculture Educator at Essex County Vocational Technical High School (also known as VoTech), where she has built a thriving food education program. There, she helps run a culinary program, a house, green roof project, and school container garden. She’s currently building new partnerships with 4H and Future Farmers of America to help students get their volunteer hours in while providing services to the school, like building chicken coops and garden beds. She’s also looking for ways to partner with the school librarian and shop teacher to make sure all students have access to her programming, regardless of whether they are enrolled in her class.
Teaching at VoTech has given Amarilys a unique perspective on the impact of her FoodCorps service. Some of the high school students she teaches at VoTech were in her middle school classes during her service. When students share their memories of FoodCorps lessons or recipes they cooked together as a class, she sees the imprint those experiences left on their lives.
Recently, one of her students walked into class and asked, “Ms. O, can we make those root vegetable dumplings with the class?” Reflecting on moments like these, Amarilys reminds herself that “some things you don’t think will impact the kids, but they really do stick.”
Amarilys has carried her FoodCorps experience with her throughout her post-service journey. It deepened her already strong conviction to build a career of meaningful impact in her home community. For her fellow alumni and service members contemplating their next steps, she has this to say:
“Exude confidence in all the things you’ve learned and go out and do the work that you want to do. Don’t feel afraid. You should know that you’re already prepared for what’s going to happen, no matter what career path you want to follow. Whatever skill set you learned, whatever life skills you learned, whatever site you were at—all of those things will translate in some way into your new position. Whatever your passion is, let that drive you in whatever path you want to follow.”
Through her work, her community, and her Garden of Worker Bees, Amarilys is doing just that.