Keney Park Sustainability Project (KPSP) provides outreach and community collaborations to help the community become more self-sustainable and environmentally conscious, while preserving historic Keney Park.

During National Park and Recreation month, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with KPSP Founder/Executive Director Herb Virgo about how the organization has continued to serve the community, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NAN PRICE: How did you become involved with KPSP?

HERB VIRGO: Originally, the 501(c)(3) was the Family Day Foundation, which hosted an annual family festival in Keney Park. My uncle, Charles Christie, and my mom, Victoria Christie, were involved with the festival until 2009, when I moved from Florida back to Connecticut. When I returned, they shifted over to the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz and I took over at the Family Day Foundation.

We continued to host the festival between 2009 and 2015, but we spent a lot of time in the park recognizing its decline—and witnessing the park’s greatness. We started talking about what we could do with the 501(c)(3) to better serve the park and the community surrounding the park.

That transitioned to the Keney Park Sustainability Project, which started with two raised beds. Everything else developed from that. We’ve grown to 21 raised beds and from one greenhouse to three greenhouses. Over the years, we added animals, aquaponics, and hydroponics.

NAN: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

HERB: I would have to say it’s being outdoors and in nature every day. I also love the freedom. We have one employee, who is me! So, I basically set my own schedule and then I spend the majority of my day in the park.

I enjoy the work I do because I feel our parks are our saving grace. They’re how we can turn our cities around and make them into destinations.

NAN: How have you maintained the KPSP mission during the pandemic?

HERB: Most of our activity throughout the year is volunteer engagement. We have 700 to 800 volunteers each year. Obviously, that has come to an end.

The last couple of years, we provided a community gardening program where each participant received a 4″ × 4″ raised bed, seeds, seedlings, and some instruction. With the current situation, we decided to scale it up because people were stuck at home and looking for activities to do with their families and their children. So, we gave away home garden kit programs that included 8″ × 4″ or 4″ × 4″ raised beds and five-gallon pots. We had a great turnout with close to 100 giveaways. We’re planning to do another round once we secure some additional funding.

It felt great to give people the opportunity to grow at home. I feel that was one of the most rewarding programs we’ve done since we started KPSP.

NAN: Where does the KPSP get its funding?

HERB: For the first round, one of our funders, Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare Foundation, recognized things were shifting, provided some additional funding, and encouraged us to keep up the good work. Also, the Hartford Foundation for Public has been providing a COVID-19 Response fund with a round of grant funding, which were able to use. So, we pieced it together for the initial round and for the second round, we’re hoping to get some more funds that are specifically dedicated to expanding the home garden care program.

NAN: Have you experienced any silver linings during this time?

HERB: Definitely. We’ve seen an increase in the amount of people interested in growing. We did seed giveaways this year for the first time at the Foodshare produce distribution locations. I think we gave away almost 5,000 seed packets. We understand that a majority of those will end up in a drawer or possibly in the trash, but even if 5% to 10% of those seeds actually ended up in the ground, then it was worth it.

People wanting to spend more time understanding how to feed themselves and how to get produce into their households has been one of the silver linings during this whole pandemic.

NAN: In terms of reopening, there are obviously many unknowns. What does the future look like for KPSP?

HERB: We’re waiting to hear from the state to find out if everything will reopen at once or it will be staggered. Once we have more information, then we can formulate a plan. I’m thinking we’ll continue our garden kit programming and further develop our virtual programming because we’re not sure what’s going to happen in the fall, and we want to be prepared for worst-case scenario. So, that’s where I’d like to continue to focus, despite the reopening of the actual park.

Also, in terms of the future, I always like to emphasize that our overall mission is to reconnect people to the healing power of nature. I also like to point out that KPSP is not an organization that plans to be around for 30, 40, 50 years. We really want to address an issue or need, come up with a sustainability plan, and be able to transition onto our next project. That’s our focus, to try to make Keney park itself more self-sustainable so there isn’t a need for sustainability project in the park.

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