Lenny Zakim (1953-1999), a Jewish boy from New Jersey who became a New England grassroots legend, died young. But the changes he made in his short life continue to change lives in this corner of the world he came to call home.
The Lenny Zakim Fund grows grassroots initiatives, the kind of small, community-based organizations founded by Gloucester’s Lara Lepionka in her own backyard back in the depths of the 2008 recession when she and her husband Steve Brosnihan decided to make ends meet by growing their own food on their small plot of land in downtown Gloucester.
Last week — surrounded by Backyard Growers development director Aria McElhenny, and board member Betsy Brown, Lepionka showed dinner guests gathered at Boston’s elegant Four Seasons hotel what everyone back in Gloucester already knows: the lady is a dynamo.
Her usual, spunky down-to-earth self, Lepionka received a standing ovation from the stylish crowd. She was there not just to be honored, but to receive on behalf of Backyard Growers $15,000 from the Lenny Zakim Fund. One of just three keynote speakers at the fund’s 22nd annual awards ceremony, she addressed representatives from over 60 Boston-area nonprofits in a celebration of social justice work across the Commonwealth, and her story — of how Gloucester’s now thriving Backyard Growers nonprofit program was born of her own family’s struggle — brought the house to its feet.
When Lepionka dug in and helped neighbors learn to grow their own food, it was the beginning of a grassroots enterprise that would in time build over 300 "incredible, edible" garden beds for families, schools and seniors throughout Gloucester. Today, it serves over 2,000 local schoolchildren with gardening programs that fill their minds, hearts and imagination, as well as their plates
The $15,000 grant award from the Zakim Fund will enable Backyard Growers to expand those programs in Gloucester public schools and to implement new programs for seniors and low-income families in the coming year.
Lepionka hasn't accomplish all this alone. Over the years she's attracted as small army of green-thumbed volunteers and staffers, and proved pretty amazing at raising greenbacks to fund it all.
Backyard Growers has grown with the help of, among others, the Boston-based b.good foundation and the Cummings Foundation, whose combined donations totaled more than $200,000, helping it grow from an annual operating starter budget of $6,500 to more than $250,000, which, says Lepionka, “is what’s needed these days to keep the lights on and pay our amazing staff.”
At the Backyard Grower’s Shop in downtown Gloucester, money is also raised through the sale of seedlings, beginner potted plants and herbs, and brightly branded gardening accessories.
But most programs — including Backyard Growers' Schoolyard Growing Program, which has become a model for other communities — are primarily funded with grants that have given birth not just to gardens, but to multiple off-shoots of community enriching projects, including partnering with The Open Door food pantry, where a self-sustaining edible garden grows free produce for the pantry’s clients, reshaping Gloucester’s relationship with food and healthy eating.