Staff Appreciation: Executive Director’s Reflections

Melissa Spear, Executive Director

Melissa Spear is Executive Director at Common Ground.

Today I am basking in my first warm and wonderful day of spring in Connecticut (I was enjoying a blast of winter in Montana on the ACTUAL first warm day of spring here in Connecticut).  It is delightful to walk outside and not be chilled – although I realized yesterday as I led a tour of Brazilians around Common Ground in sub-50 degree weather that I have adapted pretty well to Connecticut’s climate.  They were all suffering horribly while for me it just felt invigoratingly chilly.

Our guests from the southern climate huddled for warmth in the farmhouse classroom as they watched children on a field trip to Common Ground interact with our friendly chickens from afar. Upon reflection, this is actually an apt metaphor for how I feel at times.  I was thinking (or perhaps lamenting) just the other day how little time I actually spend directly on programmatic work at this point in my career.  It seems like I am mostly in meetings or at my computer while peering out my window at happy children enjoying the chickens in the chicken yard.  But the moment I start feeling bad about my situation I think about how fortunate I am to be able to support the most awesome staff in the world (really!) who run Common Ground’s programs.

I cannot imagine a more organized, thoughtful, caring and effective leader of Community Programs than Rebecca Holcombe.  She barely seems to break a sweat while managing the controlled chaos that 270+ kids on site create during Summer Camp.  She supervises a large staff of part time and seasonal workers with dignity, compassion and grace.  And to top it all off she seems to be able to magically organize a successful family oriented festival at the drop of a hat!   At her side is Jill Herbst, National Farm-Based Educator of the Year, who has taken our School Field Trips program to new heights while at the same time tending to the tremendous growth of our new School Garden Resource Center.  Together Jill and Rebecca have grown our community programs to serve over 10,000 children and adults each year – ten times the number of people who came to Common Ground 10 years ago.

On the school side Common Ground is very fortunate to have Liz Cox as Director of Common Ground High School.  Liz served as a teacher extraordinaire for almost a decade at CGHS before moving into an administrative role.  Over the last 5 years as Director of the School Liz has overseen a complete transformation of school culture – embracing a disciplined, rigorous and data driven approach to education – that has led to stellar gains in the academic performance of Common Ground students.  Even more impressive, she and her dedicated and talented staff have accomplished this while preserving a focus on real world experiential learning and environmental leadership.  But it is not just about test scores:  Liz displays an extraordinary mix of empathy, compassion and high expectations that make her an exemplary leader.  Her deep caring for her students is always simmering just below the surface, quickly flaring up whenever she sees decisions or investments being made that are not in their best interest.  No wonder Common Ground High School has a gained a well-deserved reputation as a successful, student centered school that maintains a waiting list of students hoping to join us.

In my four years here I have also gained a deep respect for the teachers, administrators and after school staff serving the students of Common Ground High School.  Their passion and dedication is almost a tangible manifestation of the work they do.  Organizations are always complicated and messy, but underlying all of the challenges Common Ground High School faces is a deep sense of community among staff and students that supports an exceptional educational experience.

This sense of passion, dedication and community extends well beyond the four walls of the High School.  Our students also are fortunate to work with Mr. G (Tom Gaudioso) ,who leads Common Ground’s Green Jobs Corps; Sarah Tracy-Wank, who supports the work they do addressing issues of social justice within their communities; Joe Lesiak, who engages students in being good stewards as he engages them in caring for our site (and for themselves); and Shannon Raider, our Farm Manager, who offers them experiences on the farm while teaching them hands on lessons in biology, chemistry, math, nutrition, sustainability, compassion, patience, responsibility, and community (among others).  The abiding respect each of these staff demonstrates for Common Ground students is inspiring.  It is clear as I watch them work that what they do is more than just a job.  They have each brought their passion to Common Ground – for youth development, for social justice, for stewarding the land, for sustainable agriculture and the power of food to deliver important life lessons.

In fact, this passion, this desire to have a positive impact on our community, seems to permeate every aspect of Common Ground’s work.   It is present in our kitchen, where our Chef Rhonda DeLoatch and her staff go above and beyond to deliver freshly prepared, delicious, nutritious food to students and staff.  They seem to make a point of exposing all of us to something new and different every day…whether it is a new fruit or vegetable or a recipe from some far flung place in the world.  Common Ground’s kitchen staff have embraced the idea that lunch at Common Ground is not just about eating food, it is about experiencing food, and learning from it.

There are so many more people working for Common Ground who deserve to be recognized and I hope they will forgive me for trying to keep this missive to a reasonable length.  But I can’t end without saying something about the people who ensure that Common Ground not only makes payroll and pays the bills every month, but is able to grow as we have over the past five years.  Heading up our development team is our grant writer, fund raiser and community leader extraordinaire Joel Tolman, whose deep understanding of Common Ground’s purpose and vision is a guiding light for all of us.  Joel is instinctively strategic, and is able to articulate who we are and what we are hoping to do in a way that our funders and our community both understand and have faith in.  Working alongside Joel is Kimball Cartwright who is helping propel Common Ground to our next phase of growth by raising the funds for a new building that will expand our capacity to serve the community.  In the process of raising these funds Kimball has demonstrated an amazing ability to reach into new communities and develop new relationships in support of our work…all with the same dedication and passion for Common Ground’s mission that I see throughout the organization.  Finally, behind the scenes is Betsy Sneath, our Director of Business and Administration, who brings organization, efficiency and a systematic approach to our financial systems that ensures they run like clockwork – all while maintaining a refreshing sense of humor.

With all of these people doing all of this good work, I sometimes wonder what it is that I actually do here?  Sometimes I think of myself as a Jack of all trades.  I am a supporter, enabler, coordinator, trouble shooter, conductor, quality controller and sometimes ambassador.  I am sometimes up on the balcony observing the bigger picture in order to see patterns and spot trouble before it creates a problem.  At other times I am on the ground feeding the chickens.  Sometimes the impact of the work I do is intangible and sometimes it is concrete, but whatever the case I am grateful to be doing it for this group of people and for this organization.  That being said, tomorrow I will be out of the office purchasing supplies for the garden build that will take place at Clinton Avenue School on Saturday.  Sometimes providing support means a trip to the hardware store – and that is fine by me.


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