FROM A SINGLE SEED
A mission to strengthen communities and assist children and families in need yields the Sustainable Family Farm.
Sustainable Family Farm is the brainchild of Ashley Rhodes-Courter, a powerhouse of a woman whose story, which she chronicles in her 2007 memoir Three Little Words, is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Ashley spent almost 10 years in foster care shuffled across multiple families, some abusive and neglectful, before being adopted from a group home at age 12. During this time, she was without a family or a community. Her life experiences, personal resiliency and perseverance inspired her to advocate for herself and other children in foster care.
Today, at age 31, she has not only personally cared for more than 25 foster children, adopted one and welcomed two more children with her husband, she has impacted hundreds of others as the founder of two organizations aimed at giving back. Sustainable Family Services, LLC, provides mental health, wellness and educational services to individuals and families in need, working to maximize community resources to provide a network of support, while the nonprofit Foundation for Sustainable Families connects families with resources that include nutrition, counseling and support.
The farm is a natural extension of the foundation’s mission to keep families stable, self-sufficient and sustainable. Here – just down the street from city hall and the library on a former family homestead (evidenced by an old sugarcane press that still sits on the property) – families work together, build skills and connect with others during shared outdoor activities, while also weaving in therapies for the children.
It’s an “experiential care farm where children and families can come to learn its history and be involved,” Ashley says.
It should also be a new source of locally-grown food, for the families involved and others. That’s because Ashley has brought in a proven urban farmer to guide the project. Ray Wunderlich, a third-generation St. Petersburg native and founder of WunderFarms, has helped countless Bay-area groups establish sustainably-grown gardens, resulting in 3,400 pounds of food being donated to charity just last year. Over the last year-and-a-half, Ray and foundation volunteers have cleaned up the property, removed invasive plants and created garden beds. One large bed currently produces kale, tomatoes, carrots and herbs, and bananas, papayas, and sugarcane all grow on the property. Bees and butterflies are encouraged, and the farm already has harvested six gallons of fresh, local honey from its hives.
A few chickens call the farm home, and Ashley intends to introduce other animals, including goats. The site should also be a new location for Sustainable Family Service’s “Rescue, Rescue” program, which adopts foster puppies and kittens from local shelters to act as therapeutic or emotional support companions for children and families.
“Little moments had such a lasting impact on my story, and my story is proof that it takes one person and one act of kindness to change a life and steer a course in a different direction.”
The Power of One
More than 200 professionals were paid to take care of Ashley in the foster system, but it was one Guardian Ad Litem volunteer who had the most impact on her life, advocating for her and helping find her adoptive family. And just as her own story is proof that one person can prove incredibly influential, Ashley hopes to be a guiding light and force for change as she aims to empower families and youth to succeed.
“Looking at bigger issues can be overwhelming and crippling,” Ashley says. ”People may turn the other way because they assume there is a system in place to deal with issues or problems that may seem too overwhelming to tackle.” She encourages individuals to take notice. And act.
With Sustainable Family Farm, Ashley is providing a place where those actions can effect change – in the lives of others, in the local food system, and in the community overall.