Dirt, food focus of Carson Scholar’s service to others

Mark Clarke, a 2011 Eve Carson Scholar, grew up on farmland outside of Asheville, N.C., that has been in his family for 100 years.

Name a job on a farm – fixing fences, raising livestock, picking apples – he’s done it. Along the way, he says, he learned “the joys, sorrows and frustrations of working in the dirt.”

Clarke brought his love of the land to Chapel Hill where, as a member of the Student Garden Co-op, he was among the founders of the Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG). Having just celebrated its first year in operation, the garden grows fresh, organic, inexpensive produce for low-wage UNC staff members and strengthens community among staff and students.

The impetus to build the garden came from UNC employees’ growing awareness of the struggle of low-wage workers to feed their families, says Claire Lorch, CCCG director. Clarke worked alongside staff, faculty and community members. “It was so clear from day one, how committed he is,” Lorch says.

Clarke, an English major, is one of two juniors to win the scholarship, established in 2008 in memory of Eve Carson, UNC’s 2007-08 student body president, who died that year. One of what Carson called her “Big Ideas” as president was to create a merit-based scholarship for UNC juniors. Zachary De La Rosa of Raleigh is the other scholar.

The award funds half the cost of attending Carolina in the senior year, plus $5,000 each for a summer enrichment experience. Clarke’s overall goal for his summer enrichment experience is “to build authentic community and individual growth around the labor of food production, preparation and consumption.”

He’ll do that in two parts. First, working with Lorch and staff from the N.C. Botanical Garden, Clarke will bring local at-risk teens – those who have been given court-mandated service hours – to volunteer in the garden. He hopes that the time in the garden will “provide the participants with a sense of self-worth and an understanding of their own ability to contribute to and receive help from a community.” The teens will work in the garden, attend workshops on gardening topics such as soil composition and help re-build the CCCG’s compost bins.

The second part of Clarke’s “summer” experience will take place early next year – summer in the southern hemisphere. After a study abroad semester in Mendoza, Argentina, Clarke plans to volunteer with the T. Borda Community Garden in Buenos Aires, which is located on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital. “It employs the skills of doctors, patients and volunteers alike for the socialization of the mental health patients the process of growing organic produce,” he says. “I hope to see the way a more established garden works to incorporate people from different walks of life into a coherent community with a similar goal.”

Ultimately, Clarke plans to bring that experience, and some polished Spanish-speaking skills, back to Chapel Hill and the CCCG. “Sometimes the problems of the world seem overwhelming to a college student,” he says, “but when I go back to my family’s farm and see strong healthy generations growing together, deeply involved in each other’s lives and the land they live on, I know that change can come.”