April Reflection: Meet Erika!

Greetings, CFET community! Please allow me to formally introduce myself. My name is Erika Schellinger and I am a twenty-six year old environmental justice advocate, who has served with CFET in various capacities for the past four years. CFET’s message has inspired me to establish a community garden, travel halfway around the world, seek out educational opportunities, and, now, to proudly serve as a Board member here.

My relationship with CFET first began in 2013 when I visited Eve’s Garden on a class trip. At the time, I had been researching community gardens with the idea of potentially starting one at my university. While my class worked in the garden, CFET’s retreat coordinator gave an impassioned speech about environmental justice and the work that CFET was doing in the Waterfront South community of Camden. A spark ignited as I realized just how important this work is and how deeply it resonated with me. It felt like fate that my professor chose this location for our trip.

For the next year, I redoubled my efforts in establishing the community garden. I even made it the centerpiece of my senior capstone project. Through that work, I learned a lot about food justice and myself, delving into the issue of privilege and wrestling with the role I should play within the environmental justice movement.

With the intent to continue learning more about the above, I applied and was accepted to a service program on a farm in Hawai`i. I spent a year there learning how to run a small farm–caring for vegetables, fruit trees, native plants, and even goats– and teaching sustainability to middle school groups. As my service term ended, I began searching for a new service opportunity. When I found that there was an Americorps program called FoodCorps that uses gardening to teach kids about healthy eating AND that CFET was one of the service sites, I felt that same tinge of fate I had felt two years prior.

So, I returned to CFET in 2015 to serve as the FoodCorps Service Member and CFET’s Garden SEEDS program manager. During my two year tenure, I taught several hundred students at four Camden schools about the joys of eating healthy foods, using the garden as a classroom. In this way, I was able to actualize food justice on a small scale. For my work, I earned the Culinary Leadership Award from the Yum-O Foundation, receiving this award on the Rachael Ray Show.

After my service term had ended, I knew that I couldn’t leave CFET entirely. So, I began volunteering as CFET’s social media coordinator, attending monthly volunteer days, and speaking to a few retreat groups on the topic of food justice. In the past two years I have also been furthering my education. I took a course designed to teach young professionals how to serve on a Board of Trustees. Through the Philadelphia County Master Gardener Program, I studied and became a Master Gardener. Currently, I am enrolled in the Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy at The University of Pennsylvania.

Last summer, my journey came full circle when I was asked to join CFET’s Board. I could not have been more ecstatic! The invitation felt like the perfect culmination of all of my work. I knew that the insight I gained from the various roles I’ve played would serve me well as a Board member and allow me to provide a different perspective in meetings.  Beyond this, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to make a deeper impact in the Waterfront South community. Now, as the Chair of the Board Development Committee, I feel lucky to be an integral part in shaping CFET’s future. I envision us more acutely addressing food inequity; strengthening our connection with our community; integrating even more social justice values within the structure of our organization; and collaborating on bigger initiatives with local partners.

My story is truly reflective of the impact of CFET. That same spark I felt six years ago, has been felt thousands of times by retreatants, volunteers, visitors, grantors, and youth program participants. CFET is transformational. In the coming years, I look forward to working with my fellow Board members, our staff, our community, and all of you to grow CFET and create more sparks of inspiration!