Fayth Ross: “Life is like a mirror. When you smile in front of it, it’ll always smile back”

Urban Roots is dedicated to bringing healthy eating and healthy living through garden-based education. There’s so much a child can learn from getting their hands into the earth and picking produce right out of the ground. Through Urban Roots, thousands of kids in the Reno-Tahoe area have benefited from a community garden, be it one of […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Urban Roots is dedicated to bringing healthy eating and healthy living through garden-based education. There’s so much a child can learn from getting their hands into the earth and picking produce right out of the ground.

Through Urban Roots, thousands of kids in the Reno-Tahoe area have benefited from a community garden, be it one of our programs at our Urban Teaching Farm or an Urban Roots Garden Classroom at Washoe County schools.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fayth Ross, executive director of Urban Roots, a Reno, Nevada based nonprofit focused on changing kids’ lifestyles through garden-based education. Ross joined Urban Roots as executive director in April 2016, where she works closely with her staff of eight, as well as with the nonprofit’s Board of Trustees. With Fayth’s leadership, Urban Roots has helped thousands of Washoe County K-12 students learn the benefits of healthy eating while delving into academia via the garden. Ross’s position as executive director is merely part of a storied career focused on getting kids outside while providing educational activities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Education has always been my passion, no matter the platform. I’d been involved in other nonprofits focused on educating kids by getting them outside, but something just felt different about this organization. When I heard Urban Roots was looking for a new executive director, I couldn’t let that opportunity slip away.

Urban Roots is all about changing not only how kids eat and learn, but also improving the health of the whole family unit. I strive to leave my community a little better at the end of the day. And maybe that they incorporate a few more salads into the week’s menu.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought some of the most interesting stories to our table, especially as they relate to the future of our work. When the pandemic hit, our entire team went into overdrive, and it was inspiring to see what they are truly capable of during strenuous times.

One specific example is my team creating a virtual festival, Reno’s Urban Roots Festival, in a matter of months. They had already pivoted our education to be digitally compliant, brought activity kits to life for physical (safe) distribution, and even began crafting homemade items to sell on behalf of the organization. During this time, we didn’t know if we were going to last ten months or even ten weeks, so we had to get really creative if we were going to survive the year.

In less than two months of my team really rolling their sleeves up, we were able to raise more than 80,000 dollars for our cause, ensuring the nonprofit’s safety for another stretch of the pandemic. But I’m confident that if I hadn’t leaned into them, hadn’t vouched for their importance as budgets were reduced, we wouldn’t have been able to concoct the solutions we did. Investing in my team in turn was an investment in the organization’s mission. Teaching healthy lifestyles to kids creates happy families, and — most importantly during this pandemic — healthy families.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve held 16 jobs since I first started working but, in all that time, I’ve never been a farmer — until I started at Urban Roots. I knew nothing about farm animals. So, envision me my first week as the new leader at Urban Roots arriving early for work to find the parking lot overtaken by a half dozen chickens scrounging the black asphalt for bugs. With no one around, a busy street nearby, and the desire to prove myself, I began chasing chickens. I must have looked ridiculous all dressed up for a day of donor meetings chasing chickens, not having the foggiest idea how to grab one. I learned quickly. I can now spew off facts about all the different types of chickens with the best of ‘em.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I think it says it right there in our name. Urban Roots is dedicated to bringing healthy eating and healthy living through garden-based education. There’s so much a child can learn from getting their hands into the earth and picking produce right out of the ground.

Through Urban Roots, thousands of kids in the Reno-Tahoe area have benefited from a community garden, be it one of our programs at our Urban Teaching Farm or an Urban Roots Garden Classroom at Washoe County schools.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of my favorite experiences at Urban Roots was with a young girl named Dylan and her dad, Dr. Chris. We joined an incredible partnership with our local Food Bank, three hospitals, and seven food pantries. This partnership involved physicians at local hospitals writing prescriptions for food for individuals identified as food insecure, diabetic, or having heart disease. Patients then visited various food pantries and redeemed their prescriptions, not just for food, but for medically tailored food to help with their diagnosis. For many of these pantries, the distributed produce came from our farm and was grown by our students. One day, in reviewing a prescription from a hospital, I noticed the name of the prescribing doctor was Dr. Chris — a father to Dylan, a kiddo who had attended pretty much every program we offered. It was so exciting to call Dr. Chris and inform him that his daughter helped grow the very produce he was writing prescriptions for. He was elated and said it was even more incentive to keep writing those prescriptions; Dylan was equally excited and even more determined to help people in her community who needed food. It was such a beautiful full-circle and seeing firsthand the spark ignited in Dylan for community service was incredible.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Donating Money: As a 501C3, Urban Roots is 100% reliant on community support. You can donate at https://www.urgc.org/donate. Donations can be a one-time donation, recurring, or a sponsorship for a child to go to our Farm Camps or homeschool programming.

Plant Something with your Kids: It sounds simple because it is! Even if you only have room for one plant on a windowsill, gardening in any form comes with enormous health benefits, including reduced stress and improved focus and memory.

Adopt a School Garden: If you cannot garden at home, you can still help build and maintain a garden at your child’s school. In our community, Urban Roots educators regularly come to the schools to help coordinate gardening tasks in order to integrate the garden into the school’s culture. We ask a group to commit to one year of service, which can be adopted on a yearly basis at https://www.urgc.org/adopt-a-school-garden. I encourage folks to look into similar programs in their own community. The benefits for getting students engaged in gardening are powerful and range from improved academic performance to long-lasting, healthy lifestyles.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership, to me, is all about creating a collaborative environment. In any organization, the best ideas come out of the room with the most people. I try and make sure every person on my team feels like their voices are heard and their ideas are valued.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Beef up on math. It was a total sink or swim experience for me to manage the financial well-being of an entire organization. While I’d managed budgets for a department, it was a whole different ball game to run an entire org. It’s infinitely easier for me now and I even discovered I LOVE a good Excel spreadsheet. However, my staff says I have a “Fayth’s Doing Math” face and it’s almost comical to watch them quickly retreat when I’m working on a budget or reconciling a month, apologizing, and saying, “Sorry, you’re doing math…I’ll come back.”

You’ll have lots of bosses and your board president/chair is KEY. In a prior job, I had one boss with a “dotted line” to another. It’s an entirely different world having 12 bosses. Right now, I have more bosses than I have staff; sometimes, my bosses require more of my time and attention than my own team. However, in the last 4+ years, I’ve painstakingly built my board of directors and now have the most incredible board president who truly understands our roles (she manages the board, I manage the staff/org). Having a strong board president is absolutely key and my job satisfaction and morale would plummet if it wasn’t for her.

Your family will grow, but with that, your worry. Like parenthood, you beam with pride when your staff do something incredible. Also like parenthood, you are responsible for the wellbeing of your staff. I love being a leader and thrive on working with a team. What I didn’t realize was how many sleepless nights I’d have worrying about my staff. Can we make payroll? Is this a quality experience where the intern is gaining as much as they’re giving? Even simple things like, “Did he put on sunscreen today?” The list goes on and on. I truly love my team — they are without a doubt the best part of my job. I celebrate their accomplishments and am so darn proud of what they achieve. But, just like my own children, I worry about them constantly.

Create boundaries and lead by example. I had a more seasoned colleague suggest that the Executive Director work at least 25% more than his or her staff. However, how healthy is it for you? And your family? And, what sort of example are you setting for your staff? I’ve really struggled with working far beyond 40 hours a week and am really bad about checking my emails, texts, phone. There have been numerous times where I check email before bed only to get bad news or receive criticism…and there goes my night’s rest. So, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to stop checking my phone after 6 PM and to rarely work on weekends choosing in order to recharge, focus on my family, and build up for the week ahead. I’ve also always illustrated through example that family comes first. I’m the first to leave to go see my daughter’s band performance and am extremely flexible for team members who take time to practice yoga or visit their new nephew a state away.

Connect with your mission, often. Whenever I need to lift my mood I remind myself why I took this job in the first place by connecting with the program’s mission. Maybe it’s simply 15 minutes of observing my staff of educators teaching a group of kiddos how to make pesto. Seeing the team’s joy and seeing kiddos light up doing something hands-on and having fun is always the perfect reset. Visiting with the kids and learning about their favorite part of the day, even opening up endless cups of applesauce…these kids are why I do what I do. I think that’s one of the things that’s been hardest with the pandemic: we haven’t had children on our farm since March. It’s been nearly impossible for me to connect with the kids served through our mission. I am looking forward to the day we can safely welcome kids back to our farm.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

While working at Urban Roots, I learned there were 75,000 school gardens across the U.S. in 1906 compared to the 7,100 existing today. Practically all public schools were teaching gardening because they recognized what an essential skill it is for kids to learn.

Not only does gardening teach healthy living, but Urban Roots uses gardening to teach countless school subjects like math and science. This is all while kids are outside and interacting with their classmates in a totally unique way.

The Reno-Tahoe community knows of Urban Roots, but I don’t think they realize we want to spread our message further. We’re taking baby steps, but we are definitely working to inspire teachers and schools to adopt school gardens back into curricula.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is like a mirror. When you smile in front of it, it’ll always smile back.”

In both my personal and professional life, I always try to put good in the world where I don’t see any. It can be as big as planning and executing a professional development workshop for teachers alongside my team, or just cooking a healthy meal with my kids. As cheesy as it sounds, what you give to the world and your business is what you get out of it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m a voracious reader. Always have been. I ended up getting both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. It would be a dream come true to meet my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve read pretty much everything she’s written; her book, “Animal Dreams” is like an old friend that I’ve reread probably a half dozen times. Like Ms. Kingsolver, my early days in writing involved writing for scientists and engineers; also, like Ms. Kingsolver identified in her nonfiction book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, I believe in the power of eating local and growing your own food.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d love for everyone to learn more about the benefits of a gardening education by following all of Urban Roots’ social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.