Chattanooga, Tenn. (Dec 6, 2016) – On International Volunteer Day, December 5, in Washington, D.C., Aquarium senior horticulturist Charlene Nash was honored with a national award for her volunteer work teaching African farmers how to improve their soil quality and agricultural practices.
Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA), a Washington D.C.-based consortium of 26 non-government organizations, selected Nash as its Volunteer of the Year. She was nominated for this honor in light of her “outstanding service” by NCBA CLUSA, a VEGA member and international farmer-to-farmer implementer.
Nash first traveled to Africa in 2008 as a volunteer to provide agricultural assistance in Kenya. Based on the personal fulfillment she felt after that experience, she began making trips more regularly, eventually establishing Soil Resources Initiative, a non-profit through which she uses donations to purchase seeds, tools and other equipment to take to African farmers.
One to two times a year, on average, she travels to villages in locations such as Mozambique, Senegal and Zambia to teach farmers how to breathe life back into soil that has been ravaged by the harsh climate and human abuse.
“They do a lot of work, a lot of labor, to eke out a living from this poor soil,” Nash said. “These soils are weathered and worn out, and we need to regenerate them. The villagers have to work pretty hard, but it can be done.”
During her trips, Nash leverages decades of experience in agricultural and horticultural science to help farmers improve growing conditions in their fields. She teaches them the importance of composting, planting cover crops and how to build up a nutrient-rich, water-retaining layer of humus. She also encourages those who benefit from her assistance to sign a pledge to plant a tree a week, a promise she helps them to uphold by purchasing seedlings for them to propagate and replant.
Without the donated equipment and seeds she and other volunteers provide, Nash said, some of these farmers might not be able to recoup their land’s long-lost growing potential.
“Their seeds are not sometimes that readily available in high quality, and sometimes, they can’t afford seeds for cover crops,” she said. “You can’t tell a poor person to plant a crop just to feed the soil when they struggle to feed themselves.”
Jackson Andrews, the Aquarium’s Director of Operations and Husbandry, said Nash’s efforts speak to the Aquarium’s core mission of conservation and are helping to improve lives in an ecologically embattled region.
“We’re very proud of what she does,” he said. “She’s able to use her horticultural skills to really make a difference in people’s lives.”
For her part, Nash said the award is secondary to the feeling that she’s using her knowledge to help others.
“I’m glad to be recognized, but it’s not about me and the awards,” she said. “I do it because I love teaching.”