Funding a vision: Cleveland event showcases, propels sustainable gardening nonprofit Happy Roots

Published 12:10 am Thursday, November 9, 2023

CLEVELAND — Several community members gathered in Cleveland last weekend to celebrate the work of and fundraise for the Rowan County-based nonprofit Happy Roots. One special guest, Tony Hillery, who runs a similar organization in New York City, trekked down to N.C. for the occasion.

Happy Roots represents founder and director Ashley Honbarrier’s mission to provide nature-based therapeutic and educational services to enhance the wellness of the community and environment through impactful programs to reach youth and adults on a personal level.

The event on Saturday was held at the Vista at Walnut Hill Event Center in Cleveland. The organizers served food grown in Happy Roots gardens and prepared by Chef John Wilson of Sophie’s Cork and Ale in Lexington. N.C.-based American act Chatham County Line performed during the event.

It was a fundraising effort that also sought to showcase Happy Roots’ work throughout the community. During the reception, Hillery spoke about how his organization, Harlem Grown’s values align with those of Happy Roots.

“Hard work, the struggles, no pay,” Hillery said. “Look at this room. How many of you want to get up every day and go to work for free? Kind of a crazy thought, right, but that is what we do.”

Hillery reiterated the importance of Happy Roots and Harlem Grown’s reach to their respective communities.

“I just want to reiterate one thing,” Hillery said. “The results are in. We know the impact of the work that we do. You see it around us every day. School budgets are cut. City budgets are cut. There is nothing for these children to do.”

One of the primary projects that Happy Roots does is to put Rowan County’s school-aged population within arm’s reach of sustainable gardening efforts. Hillery brought up that the work does not stop there.

“Let’s get past the children,” Hillery said. “Let’s go to the seniors. Go to any senior facility in this county or in this state. Ask a senior the number one activity they would like to do, and I’ll tell you it will be gardening.”

Those results don’t just happen overnight.

“The research is done, and we know it works,” Hillery said. “You guys see it. You can witness it here. I got to tell you, before I came up here, I met a young man in the room tonight at the (Earth Day) Jam. I’m talking to him about what he is doing these days. He says I am working. I said, ‘What are you doing here? Are you working?’ He said, ‘No, I do this for free.’

“(If) You want to see the ripple effect of this work, (then) you don’t have to look too far, just look around the room. We talk about return on investments. What if we don’t support programs like (Happy Roots)? What happens to our seniors? What happens to our youth? Where do they go? Nowhere, or places that we would not like to discuss.”

Hillery stressed the value of finding that thing that drives you to carve out a role in the community.

“Everyone here wakes up every day, and we walk out (of the house), and there is something that burns your butt, and you ask yourself, when is someone going to do something about that?

“Well, you are looking at people who do that every day. We found that thing that burns our butt, and we are doing it. But we can’t do it alone.”

Community projects take the entire community pitching in. On Saturday, in Cleveland, the community pitched in, but keeping the Happy Roots vision alive is not a one-night affair.

Hillery closed his comments with a charge to action.

“Everyone doesn’t have a million dollars, but I have a saying in the signature of my emails — No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” Hillery said. “Do what you can … then we can get to the place that we all want to be.”