Rita O’Brien has contributed significantly to several neighborhoods in Lansing, particularly on the Southside and currently on Lansing’s Eastside. After a stint as an AmeriCorps Member and Manager of the Southside Farmers Market, Rita came to Allen Neighborhood Center where she began to transform operations at the Hunter Park GardenHouse.
As Director of all greenhouse operations and programs since 2011, Rita has guided the development of a robust set of gardening education programs for all ages and backgrounds. Under her leadership, the year-round GardenHouse now offers over 24 high quality gardening workshops each year, drawing people from throughout Greater Lansing. She has also developed a year-round, three season CSA (community supported agriculture program) that has extraordinarily flexible payment options, including weekly payments and workshares, and accepts SNAP benefit and Double UP Food Bucks.
Rita has worked closely with the Coordinator of our 15 year old Youth Service Corps (YSC), a job and life skill training project, to expand their focus to include the following exciting programs:
1) Garden-In-A-Box, in which youth construct and deliver 2’x2’ garden box kits to homes of neighbors who have limited income and gardening skills (Note: Over 100 boxes have been distributed over the past few years!)
2) Fruit Tree Project, which involves youth mapping, harvesting, and re-distributing fruit from neighborhood fruit trees in an effort to minimize food waste
3) Edible Park, where youth plan, plant, and maintain fruit trees, bushes, and perennial herbs in a designated space in Hunter Park where edibles are available, free for the taking
4) Park Cart, a concession cart selling healthy, affordable snacks to Allen Street Farmers Market patrons.
A skilled and committed networker, Rita has helped advance several collaborations, including the Youth Gardening Collaborative, the Let’s Garden Lansing Collaborative, and, most recently, the Let’s Farm Michigan Collaborative.
In addition to all of the above, Rita serves as Associate Director of the Allen Market Place, ANC’s latest facility which houses an incubator Kitchen, our Winter Allen Street Farmers Market and the Exchange—an on-line wholesale market linking growers in mid-Michigan to commercial and institutional buyers interested in “buying local.” She is presently over-seeing the build-out of an unheated space attached to the Allen Market Place that will very soon house a walk in cooler, wash and pack station, pallet shelving and other storage options for growers and also for neighbors who need a place to stash their late season harvest so they can access it during the winter months. Finally, as if her ‘work’ didn’t keep her busy enough, Rita takes time to serve on the City of Lansing Parks Board.
Rita is an inspiration to her immediate neighbors as well. She and her long-time partner purchased a foreclosed home, in need of a lot of repair, and as Rita put it, “immersed themselves in grueling work, often in freezing temperatures, to re-plumb, tear down and build walls, and replace rotted flooring, salvaging as much as we could to make a home of our own. The home, like me, is not perfect, with its battle wounds and history, but I believe it makes it that much more endearing and full of character.”
Rita is indefatigable! One cannot help but wonder how this just-turned-30 year old will be impacting life in Lansing over the next decade. Already, her impact extends well beyond the Eastside and in fact, touches people throughout the region. Smart, creative, thoroughly engaged in the life of the community and, very importantly, fun, Rita is an outstanding emerging leader. We are fortunate, indeed, to have someone the caliber of Rita O’Brien working every day to create healthy, livable and connected neighborhoods in our City.