Volunteer of the Month: Gigi Casey’s Passion for Diverse Green Space in South-Central Shines

TreePeople is only as successful as our volunteers allow us to be – their hands are tied to the roots of our movement and without their hard work and dedication, our efforts would come to a halt. We want to take the time and space to acknowledge the incredible people who remind us that trees need people and people need trees, so we’ve decided to highlight one of our standout volunteers every month here on our blog!

Our very first Volunteer of the Month is Gigi Casey: an advocate, grandmother, and dedicated member of the South-Central L.A. community. Her grandson attends Augustus Hawkins High School where, last year, she began the long process of developing a garden to support her grandson’s community.

“I want to make sure the place [my grandson] is in is a good place and a vibrant space,” she said. 

With the support of community leaders like Ron Finley (aka The Gangsta Gardener), Adrienne Wilson of Feed our Souls, Brandy Williams of Garden Butterfly L.A., and organizations including TreePeople, the idea of creating an open, democratic, wall-free space came to life in South-Central. 

When Casey spoke about the garden, her love for the people involved in the project shone through every word. She is dedicated to the students and stressed the garden’s power to cultivate an environment that brings a sprawling community of people together:

Our food culture at this school is so rich because of diverse populations,” she said. “There are people coming from Haiti, people coming from Nicaragua, from Ecuador, from South-Central. We’re sharing our food culture with each other and it is rich, just as our garden doesn’t have fences or boundaries, we don’t have fences or boundaries. ” 

Students, teachers, and families contribute to the garden.  Looking around the flourishing space you’ll find Ms. Gwen’s basil, Dianne’s collard greens, one young student’s Marigolds, and another’s Persian Cucumbers. These community members exchange recipes for unfamiliar foods and stories about the origins of the plants. 

The biodiverse space is used by the garden club, the mental health club, teachers, principals, visitors, counselors, students, and as an open-air classroom. Casey describes it as a peaceful, dynamic, vibrant, collaborative space that welcomes anyone in need of a snack between classes (strawberries are the biggest hit) or a quiet refuge during a tough day. 

Casey’s work doesn’t end in the garden: fresh produce is given to families and students for free at pop-up farmer’s markets and the Augustus Hawkins Garden team is working to help a local church, a kindergarten class at a west side temple, and an ex-offender advocacy group to create community gardens of their own. 

“We want to take life and bring it out into the community,” she said.

At the beginning of the project, Casey remembers the daunting task in front of her. With no financial backing from the Title 1 school, while working with the soil under the hot sun, her team looked up to see written in massive white letters in the sky: “You’re stronger than you know.” This message, intended as a celebration of Women’s History Month, set the tone for the months ahead.

“To see that above our heads, it was just like a confirmation that we could do that,” Casey said. “I just remember that day: the laughter, just like the tinkling of bells. And we were all happy and we were hopeful.”  

The beauty of volunteering is that anyone can do it. When asked what she would say to someone considering dedicating time to their community, the smile on her face was audible in her words as she responded:

“If we can do it, you can do it. And it’s just one step at a time and how it happens is that we help each other.”