STAMFORD, Conn. — It all started with a goal to bring students closer together, something Westhill High School graduate Nancy Juarez said was a challenge for her when she started high school.

“I started off freshman year feeling poorly and like I don’t belong,” Juarez said. “Then I got more involved.”

Juarez, now preparing to attend University of California Davis and major in International Agricultural Development this fall, said she hopes the creation of a community garden at her alma mater will help bridge this gap students may face.

“(I thought) how can I close the gap from feeling like you don’t belong to feeling like you do. I feel the garden can close that gap,” Juarez said, and her plans for a greenhouse are an extension. “Making the greenhouse and having Westhill and ARTS could extend that bridge.”

Working in partnership with Westhill and the district’s Alternative Routes to Success (ARTS) program, she created a plan to build a garden, where students, teachers, and staff can take home whatever vegetables are grown. The educational benefits to students, as well as the chance to provide fresh vegetables to those in need, also gave the project more cause.

The plan soon expanded into a revitalization effort for an unused greenhouse on the high school’s campus. Juarez has set up a Kickstarter page for the project to help fund the effort.

“I wanted it to be a community space and to have a feeling that everyone is welcome there,” Juarez said. “The space is for the people and I want them to sincerely feel that.”

So far, the undertaking has been met with positivity.

“Students are very excited about the project. They’re asking, ‘oh, when can we start?'” Juarez said. “(It’s) very much a community effort.”

The project has been a learning experience for Juarez, as well. Over the summer, she interned at Fairgate Farm, a farm at the center of Stamford’s Vita Health and Wellness District. The district is a mixed-income community on the city’s west side that offers affordable housing, a communal farm, and job training and educational opportunities for residents.

At Fairgate Farm, Juarez said she gained hands-on experience in sustainable gardening, which helped tremendously in taking on this size of a project for the first time.

“This is my first year gardening and I have no idea how it’s gone so well,” Juarez joked. “It went beyond what I was expecting. It’s all been positive so far.”

After she leaves for college, Juarez said it will be up to Westhill and ARTS students to continue the garden and greenhouse project, of which she has no doubt will continue. The ultimate goal, she said, is for the garden and greenhouse to provide fresh produce for students, staff, and local shelters and food banks.

“People are already tending to it even when I’m not there,” Juarez said. “That was always the hope.”

Information from: The Advocate,