Transforming the environment and lives

Dean Buttacavoli, left, Urban Farmer and Educator for the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden, works in the organization’s greenhouse with 17-year-old Senior Farmer, Dimitrius Eliza. Photo by Joanna Gardner
Dean Buttacavoli, left, Urban Farmer and Educator for the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden, works in the organization’s greenhouse with 17-year-old Senior Farmer, Dimitrius Eliza.
Photo by Joanna Gardner

Encountering Mercy: Give Drink to the Thirsty

“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In April and May, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Give Drink to the Thirsty” and “Shelter the Homeless,” respectively. These months’ profiles highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives.

It’s a sunny day at the beginning of spring. The hum of bees fills the air, peach and pear tree branches sway gently in the breeze, filtering sunlight through young green leaves. A group of parishioners stands in the middle of an orchard, with more than a dozen fruit trees and two beehives housing their pollinators at one end.

But this isn’t the Jersey countryside; this is Camden, the Waterfront South neighborhood, which borders some of the city’s most active industrial zones along the Delaware River. The orchard has grown on a city lot nestled between row homes just down the street from Sacred Heart Church.

The orchard, along with four other garden sites in the neighborhood, is managed by the Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET), an independent non-profit founded by Sacred Heart in 2007.

Those five urban gardens, which together cover an acre of growing space, are only the beginning of the organization’s work in this neighborhood. Each summer, the group employs Eco Interns, middle and high school students from the surrounding community, who spend an intensive eight weeks working in the gardens, cooking with the vegetables they grow, selling the vegetables at a farmer’s market and learning leadership, entrepreneurship and professional development.

“We’re the Center for Environmental Transformation not only because we’re transforming neglected spaces into green spaces. We’re also transforming lives,” said Dean Buttacavoli, CFET’s Urban Farmer and Educator, who oversees the gardens and the Eco Interns program.

This summer CFET will employ nine-10 interns, plus older students called Assistant and Senior Farmers who have gone through the program and taken on leadership roles. They act as supervisors and mentors, overseeing the interns’ work in the gardens and kitchen, and giving presentations on life skills, professional development and justice issues.

Dimitrius Eliza, 17, is a Senior Farmer this year. He’s been involved since he was in sixth grade, rising from volunteer during the school year to summer Eco Intern, to Assistant and then Senior Farmer.

Asked what he enjoys most about the program, Eliza responded, “Being outside. And I really do like vegetables.”

“I think the thing that makes me keep coming back each year are the kids that I work with. They’re really fun to be around. You watch them come together as a group — around the middle of the summer, everyone melts together.”

As Senior Farmer, Eliza’s work begins in March, when he starts putting in four to six hours a week helping Buttacavoli prepare the lots for planting. But one of his major roles during the off-season is as a public speaker.

One of the Center’s primary activities is hosting Environmental Retreats. The former Sacred Heart Convent serves as the Center’s office and a retreat house that can accommodate up to 24 people for service learning retreats that last anywhere from one to seven days. They currently do about 12 retreats a year, most of them for college groups.

During the day, the groups work in the gardens and on service projects with other Camden non-profits. In the evenings, they hear presentations on environmental and social justice. One of the presenters is Eliza who shares his experiences growing up in Camden and his work with the gardens.

“The biggest things I’ve learned [from the program] have been leadership skills, public speaking and money and time management,” Eliza said.

He plans on pursuing a degree in engineering in college.

“On these retreats, the college students meet the interns and the Senior Farmer. Tthey sit across from each other, and it’s just an eye-opening experience for both of them,” said John Levy, chair of the CFET Board.

“The kids coming in from other places may have an image in their mind of what the kids living in the city are like, and when they meet the kids they’re just amazed at how they’re just like them,” he said. “They have dreams and goals and they share their love of the environment. Then our kids meet the students coming in from the colleges and they learn about college tuition, how they got there, what major they picked. It’s transformative for both sides.”

Some Eco Interns stay on into the fall to participate in the Center’s Youth Entrepreneurship program. Their project through the end of October is to make, bottle, market and sell a product: “Kapow” hot sauce. The recipe was developed by past students, and the peppers are grown by the youth.

Even interns who don’t stay into the fall learn entrepreneurial skills by working the Wednesday night youth-run farmer’s market on Ferry and Broad streets in Camden where they sell their produce to local residents.

Most of the city of Camden, and this neighborhood, is what is known as a “food desert,” which means that residents lack access to supermarkets and nutritious, fresh foods. The community gardens and farmer’s market is helping to change that, with its fresh greens and tomatoes that started as seedlings in the center’s greenhouse, to potatoes and beans grown in raised planters, to cherries, plums and figs from the orchards.

“Gardening or urban farming in general addresses a lot of different issues; not just environmental issues, but social justice issues,” Buttacavoli said. “Environmental sustainability is the big one that comes to mind but it’s also about providing fresh food to an urban community, providing jobs. I’m really hoping to train the next generation of urban farmers. Camden has a lot of empty lots. I hope they can be transformed to be a source of food and livelihood while also healing the earth.”

Learn more about the Center for Environmental Transformation and how to get involved at


The mercy of giving drink to the thirsty

In his encyclical on the environment, Ladauto Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, published in May of 2015, Pope Francis examines the morality of caring for the earth within the context of what he calls an “integral ecology.” This approach recognizes the interconnectedness of everything on earth and argues that caring for the environment is inextricably connected to caring for one another.

“When we speak of the “environment,” what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”