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A CPA by trade and training, Valley Shore YMCA Controller Debbie Quinn has helped her community flourish through projects like the Y’s Community garden, which provides fresh produce for the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries as well as a chance for locals to get involved. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

A CPA by trade and training, Valley Shore YMCA Controller Debbie Quinn has helped her community flourish through projects like the Y’s Community garden, which provides fresh produce for the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries as well as a chance for locals to get involved. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

Debbie Quinn: Helping her Community Grow

Published June 12, 2019

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Debbie Quinn is not a gardener. Yet six years ago, after about a year working as controller of the Valley Shore YMCA (VSYMCA) in Westbrook, she found herself overseeing a new initiative there: a community garden. And despite not being a gardener, despite her kids laughing whenever they think of her managing a vegetable garden, despite her claims that “If you saw my yard, you would know that I’m not a gardener,” she’s stewarded the project with energy, devotion, and success.

The sign over the garden shed testifies to that: “Over 11,700 pounds of fresh vegetables to the Food Pantry.”

“I’ve always said I’m not a gardener, and it’s not like I love to garden, but I do hate the idea of hunger and that’s what spurred me on,” she says. “It was the idea that there was hunger right here.”

The garden came out of an effort to further fulfill the Y’s mission as a social services organization.

The Y is not just “a gym and swim,” she explains. “We had this sort of different reputation from what our mission was.”

Focus groups were formed, and the community garden idea came up. Vegetables would be grown and donated to the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries.

“Chris Pallatto, our CEO, said, ‘How would you like to be involved?’” she explains. “I said I could do the administration piece. I don’t garden and I’m not really...that cheerleader person to motivate volunteers, but I’ll be the behind-the-scenes administrator.

“But then we didn’t get a cheerleader and we didn’t get a gardener and so...I just kind of fell into it that way,” she says with a laugh.

That conversation with Pallatto, she recalls, happened in February 2013. The garden was planted the following June.

Growing Support

How did someone with so little gardening experience bring an idea to fruition so quickly? Advice and community support, she says. There are other community gardens in the area that donate produce to the food pantry: Common Good Garden in Old Saybrook was a model. Another was Food for All Garden in Clinton, started by Margaret Larom, who had worked at Common Good Garden and decided to start a similar one in Clinton.

“Margaret was our angel, telling us everything that we needed know so that we were up and running within months,” says Debbie. “It only took us like two months to get all the stuff we needed, utilizing the advice and the recommendations of Food for All Garden and Common Good Garden. They shared their ideas and said, ‘Okay, this is where you’re going to need irrigation, you’re going to need deer fencing. Those are going to be your pricey things, that’s what you’re going to want to figure out first.’ And they were right on: We got up and running because of their advice.”

Other community partners stepped in: An article in the Harbor News spurred Riggio’s Garden Center in Essex to offer tomato seedlings, and it hase been donating them every year since. In addition, Riggio’s annual and perennial manager Dave Trestle has been a great source of information and advice.

“There’s lots of different advice and lots of gardeners or farmers do things differently,” Debbie says. “So sometimes the advice competes. That’s when I go over to the Riggio’s folks and say, ‘Hey—what do you think? Which way should we go?’”

A $3,000 grant from the Westbrook Foundation allowed the Y to install an irrigation system and put up deer fencing. A second grant of $4,500 in the garden’s third year went toward building a shed, supplemented by grant funds shared by several community gardens from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.

Membership dues are not used for the garden, Debbie explains.

“We fundraise for it,” she says. “People [and local businesses] will buy a garden bed sponsorship for $250 and they’ll have their name attached to that bed.”

Some, like Riggio’s, provide in-kind donations.

“We have a grandmother who wanted the strawberry beds to have her grandchildren’s names,” Debbie says. “Some of our beds have been in memory of someone who would have loved the project. The Rockfall Foundation gives us money, as well.

“We have some people that have done it every year, so they’re on their sixth year of sponsoring a bed because they believe in it so much,” she added.

A Rich Harvest

Volunteers planted seedlings in late May this year and harvesting will begin in July, continuing through September. There are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, Swiss chard, cucumbers, and strawberries.

“Because the pantry’s only open on Tuesdays, that’s when we harvest: Tuesday mornings, usually between the hours of 9 to 11,” she explains. “And that’s the fun part, is getting to pick the vegetables and knowing what they’re going for and where they’re going.”

A group of volunteers from Vista Life Innovations’ Connect Program comes to rinse the harvested vegetables, pack them up, and deliver them to the pantry. Vista is an organization that works with adults with disabilities, and the Connect Program literally connects these volunteers with the community.

“That one touches my heart because I used to work [at Vista Life Innovations] and now I’m on the board of directors,” she says.

From 1997 to 2007, she was Vista’s director of finance and administration.

“At Vista, it doesn’t matter what your job title is,” she says. “When someone with a disability is looking for staff, it doesn’t matter what your job description is. You’re going to help when they want or need help. You can’t really dissect the mission from the business.”

Debbie recognized her need to contribute to the community early in her career. After growing up in Madison, she attended college in Rhode Island and went on to work in Providence.

“I’m a CPA by background,” she says. “I went to college to become a public accountant. It didn’t take too long of doing taxes when I realized it didn’t—I’ll keep saying ‘touch my heart’ because that’s just how it feels. It just didn’t really didn’t satisfy me.

“So while I was in public accounting, I started specializing in non-profit work and being a non-profit consultant,” she continues. “And so that’s where I liked being, is being able to help those with a mission.”

Her first job outside of public accounting was her nine-year stint at Vista, and her affection for the Vista community remains.

“We have a whole lot of Vista members that I met through my Vista days who are here working out because we are their community building,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll come with Vista staff, but most of them come on their own because Vista has taught them that healthy living includes exercise.”

Making Connections

That Vista volunteers help clean and pack food grown at the community garden and deliver it to the food pantry is meaningful to her in a number of ways, not least of which is the convergence of three non-profit organizations working together to help those in need. That kind of partnership is important to her.

Two years ago, Old Saybrook’s social services coordinator, Susan Consoli, contacted Pallatto about collecting back-to-school supplies and backpacks for kids in need.

“We put this drive together and we called it Operation Backpack and that will be going into year three,” Debbie says. “So that became my little baby as well.”

VSYMCA members are asked to take a tag from a poster indicating whether the child they are shopping for is a boy or a girl, and is in elementary school, middle school, or high school. They then purchase a backpack and fill it with supplies. The first year, 80 backpacks were collected. Last year, the number rose to around 130.

“Some of these backpacks are filled,” she says. “You can barely lift them up. You wonder how the kids are going to actually walk with these things. The members are just phenomenal.

“And the little notes of encouragement that they put in,” she continues. “They don’t know the child, they’re just envisioning a child and what they might need.

“That’s where the social responsibility part of the Y has really kicked in,” she says. “And now people are getting it: The Y is a social service organization. It’s a community organization.”

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