Recalling her time as a Wellesley student, Polly Keller Vanasse ’73 says, “I was not a very confident person, except when I was in situations where I could give back to communities. Then, something magical happened.”
Polly volunteered at a school in East Boston, she says. “We’d drive in every Tuesday morning and teach kids, and it was so invigorating.”
Years later, as an environmental science teacher at Nashoba Brooks School in Concord, Mass., she “saw a lot of insecure girls who were looking for a place and a purpose,” she says. And she remembered how community service had helped her at Wellesley.
An acquaintance who wanted to give away surplus produce from her farm approached Polly and asked if her class might volunteer to help. “My kids said, ‘Sure, we’ll pick apples and donate them,’” she recounts. That volunteer activity soon became her students’ favorite day of the year. “Every year, it got better and better,” says Polly, who incorporated the farm visits into her curriculum.
Over time, the farm “grew and moved, and grew and moved,” Polly says, morphing into Gaining Ground, a nonprofit that for more than 25 years has grown organic vegetables and fruit with the help of thousands of community volunteers. Gaining Ground donates 100% of its fresh food to meal programs and food pantries around Boston.
Since retiring, Polly has joined the Gaining Ground board. She also takes three-hour shifts working in the fields. “Imagine an experience that fuels passion, connects you with awesome volunteers, gives you a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning, and educates you about organic farming,” Polly says. “I work side by side with the farmers. I absorb what they have to teach me. We do a lot of hard work. We distribute food, and we get to see firsthand what a difference it makes.”
Gaining Ground is also about human dignity and love. People suffering from food insecurity might not have money to spare on flowers, so the nonprofit grows them and includes bouquets with each food delivery. As a result, “people feel so respected,” Polly says. One older man told her, “We love all the vegetables, but my wife puts the bouquet on the table. And she says it’s just like we’re dating again.”