When Dera Duplessis fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she had one priority: making sure her family was fed.
It wasn’t going to be easy. While her family had managed to safely evacuate to a hotel in Texas, they couldn’t exactly bring their kitchen with them — and with five children, there were a lot of mouths to feed.
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It didn’t take Dera long to realize that eating out wasn’t an option. “Breakfast was like $80,” she explains. “That’s not cutting it on a daily basis, three [meals] a day.”
She knew she would have to get creative. So to stock up on food that could last through the hurricane season, she tried something she’d never done before: pickling and preserving.
“I had pickled vegetables, my jams and soups … anything that I could make,” she says.
Dera's system worked so well that she continued pickling vegetables and making jams well after Katrina, in part so that her family was prepared for future emergencies. But she enjoyed it and kept at it as a way to pass the time.
What Dera didn’t know was that more than a decade later, this survival-strategy-turned-hobby would become an important way for her to give back.
Once Dera’s children were grown and she had retired from her job as a hospice nurse, she was left wondering what was next. “I just needed something else,” she says. “I was missing something.”
That’s when her sister told her about Sprout NOLA, a community garden in her neighborhood made possible by the Green Garden Giveaway by Garnier and TerraCycle. The giveaway includes picnic tables and garden boxes made from recycled personal care products — like shampoo bottles and makeup containers — as well as a cash grant to build a green garden for a deserving community.
Since Sprout NOLA was established with the help of Garnier and TerraCycle, the garden has become something of an oasis, offering free veggies and garden plots to the community, as well as a gathering place where neighbors could connect with one another.
At first, though, she wasn’t totally convinced.
“I don’t have the green thumb,” she laughs. In fact, she was pretty sure she would kill anything she tried to grow; as a self-described “tomboy,” she was more of the mechanic type than a gardener. But with curiosity and a little nagging from her sister, she decided to sign up anyway.
That’s how Dera tried her hand at gardening for the first time. And to her surprise, she really enjoyed it (and her plants, miraculously, didn’t die after all). With fresh food from the garden, she had found a creative outlet, cooking up her own jams, salad dressings, soups, and pickled veggies and even selling them at local farmers markets.
She also learned about different herbs and plants she’d never used before, like hibiscus, which made her foods even more interesting.
“[I] actually tasted the flower and all,” she says. “I did not realize it tasted so good.” She never imagined eating a flower — but then again, she hadn't pictured herself as a gardener, either.
Most importantly, the garden led Dera to discover a way to give back to her community through fresh, healthy food.
For her community, it’s more than a nice gesture — it’s desperately needed.
“The life expectancy in the Treme, which is a neighborhood that’s close to us here, is currently 55 years old,” explains Emily MickLey-Doyle, the community garden coordinator at Sprout NOLA. Compare that with the 75-year-old life expectancy in other New Orleans neighborhoods, and you’ll quickly understand just how critical fresh, healthy food can be for Dera’s community.
“The majority of the people [here] believe in fast foods,” Dera says. She knows this better than anyone, having struggled with diet-related health challenges herself and having seen it in her family, too. For conditions like high blood pressure, which she’s now better able to manage, Dera’s seeing firsthand the impact that a healthy diet can have.
Dera says that cooking with fresh foods is often assumed to be too challenging or time-consuming, particularly in her community. But she’s excited to show them that it doesn’t have to be and that when neighbors support each other, they can lead healthier lives.
Since starting her gardening journey, Dera’s relationships with her neighbors and the planet have changed.
Whether it’s the rich soil that came from veggies that she composted last season or the oxygen she breathes thanks to the plants that she’s growing, Dera finds herself amazed by the earth in ways she hadn’t been before.
“You can see how the earth gives back,” she says.
In fact, everything in the garden has been recycled in some way. The garden boxes and picnic tables are actually made out of recycled shampoo bottles and created by Garnier and TerraCycle.
The recycled lumber used for these garden boxes have an infinite shelf life, too, which means they’ll last well into the future. And that’s good news for Dera, who hopes to see the garden thrive well into the future.
Not everyone has a green thumb. Thankfully, you don’t need one to make a neighborhood better.
Four years into the project, Sprout NOLA has become a central part of the community, bringing neighbors together for fresh food, good conversation, and an important lesson in what’s possible when everyone works together.
“We want the community to know that you are able to do this if you just put your mind to it,” Dera says. “If you want to, you can achieve it.”
And for residents like Dera, it’s become so much more than a hobby or a place to go. “It’s like family away from home for me.”