Growing a Community

Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76

Growing a Community

Paula poses with one of the garden’s oldest volunteers

Courtesy of Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76

Paula poses with one of the garden’s oldest volunteers

Courtesy of Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76

Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76 was heartbroken when her beloved husband, Charles “CMadison” Nabrit, died after 36 years, 8 months, and 22 days of marriage. As she thought about how to honor his memory, she remembered him growing vegetables in the backyard when their twin sons, Charles and Damon, were infants. “Sweetie pie, we don’t know who’s bottling that baby food,” CMadison would tell her, adding that “if you don’t have time to garden, you probably don’t have time to parent or pastor. They each require the same daily attention to detail in the same posture of humility-head bowed, body bent.”

From then on, CMadison, whose father and paternal grandfather were ministers, always made time to garden for the couple’s three boys (younger brother, Evan, was born 27 months after the twins), whether he was working as a stockbroker, early on, or later at PN&A, Inc., a management consulting firm Paula founded in 1986.

Those memories inspired her to create the Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden (CMNMG) behind the Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Columbus, Ohio, a predominantly black congregation her great-grandparents joined more than 100 years ago.

“The USDA designates our zip code as a low-income, low- access food desert,” she says. “The two closest supermarkets are Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, both 4.3 miles away.”

Paula envisioned CMNMG as a place that would provide affordable, organic produce and a sense of community. In the spring of 2014, her two elder sons, with help from their cousins, built 38 raised beds from untreated lumber, lined them with cardboard for organic weed control, and filled them with 20 tons of organic soil. They also engineered an above-ground drip irrigation system and crafted walkways.

Within weeks, myriad flowers, fruit trees and bushes, and vegetables were planted in the 3,850-square-foot space, which also featured wrought-iron fences and benches where people could sit and meditate. Produce was sold for $1 a pound at a weekly, onsite farmer’s market and bake sale in partnership with two other local organic gardens. “This is a boon to the spiritual, cultural, nutritional, and economic health of the community,” Paula says.

Children in the community also hungered for the kind of hands-on educational activities CMadison, a Dartmouth graduate, had always provided for their sons, so that first summer, Charles and Damon began hosting free weekly “Science in the Garden” classes for kids age 5 to 14. Their Recycling & Organic Chemistry/DIY Series was immediately popular. Children recycled coffee grounds, dried banana peels, and dried egg shells to make organic soil amendments, and mixed up batches of grape Kool-Aid—A.K.A. methyl anthranilate—to produce a non-toxic repellent for berry-loving birds.

Paula hopes to add an arts component this summer, if she can secure enough funding. (All of the proceeds from her published books—on topics ranging from home-schooling to business ethics—support the garden.) “This is a critical piece because the arts are critical to spiritual and intellectual development,” she says. “I see student string quartets and plein air painting classes in our future!”

As an undergraduate, Paula would never have imagined a garden being such a big part of her life. “My grades in plant biology were hideous,” she says. Yet as she thinks about CMNMG, she is surprised and delighted that a space intended to honor CMadison (and to provide therapy for her) “has grown to provide peace and tranquility, learning and engagement for many others in the targeted zip code and beyond.”

Youngest son Evan created a video about the garden: You can follow CMNMG@CCAF online at or on Facebook at the CMN Memorial Garden.

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