LandPaths director promotes community through Roseland farm

Eight years ago, Roseland’s 6-acre Bayer Farm was an empty, trash-filled field in a neglected and marginalized area. Today it is a vibrant nature hub with ?30 garden plots for individual families, areas for children to play, goats to pet, paved paths to walk and opportunities for community interaction and learning, such as a reading program for children and families.

The idea began with LandPaths, a nonprofit conservation organization that saw the potential of Bayer Farm. It was located near a low-income, heavily Latino neighborhood and had the potential to reach a more diverse audience.

Omar Gallardo, the group’s outreach and diversity director, played a key role in making that possible. He came in three years ago and began forging the community collaboration that brought Bayer Farm to life by serving as a liaison between LandPaths, Santa Rosa’s Recreation and Parks Department, the community and volunteers.

“I helped develop leaders to actually engage with the program and take responsibility in the garden,” Gallardo said, “and fostered and coordinated many projects that we now have, like the free lunch program and a reading program.”

It was a project that resonated with Gallardo, who developed his love of the outdoors as a child.

“In Mexico, public parks are part of daily life,” he said. “Even the smallest town has a zocalo, a public plaza, where people hang out. Urban parks are extremely important to neighborhoods here, too. They’re the front door of a community, places where people come together, hang out, share and celebrate.

“That’s particularly true for people who don’t have yards and gardens of their own. At Bayer, it’s great to see people coming together from everywhere - from Michoacán and other parts of Mexico, or Congolese, Vietnamese, Africans, Caucasians.

“It’s a place to teach the quintessential Sonoma County lessons of treating Mother Earth with respect, a way to invest in our children’s future.”

Gallardo was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and came to California with his parents at 5. A few years later, when his father was injured, the family returned to Mexico and began farming.

“We kids loved that,” he said. “We loved the outdoors. A river was close by; we grew corn and vegetables. My dad explained that our well-being depended on what we produced and how we took care of the land.”

Eventually the family returned to Sonoma County, where Gallardo continued enjoying the outdoors.

“We spent a lot of time at the Jewel of Sonoma County, Parque de los Patos,” he said. “That’s what Latinos call the combined Spring Lake Regional Park and Howarth Park, Park of the Ducks. We went to Lake Sonoma a lot, too, which wasn’t far from our home in Geyserville.”

Gallardo finished high school and began working his way through Sonoma State University with the goal of becoming a teacher. One of his summer jobs was with the California Mini-Corps Program, which provides instruction for migrant students. At a one-week outdoor education program, he went camping for the first time.

“That experience rekindled for me what I valued about living in Mexico,” he said, “being outdoors, knowing and loving the land. I got that love first from my parents, but I developed it further and understood it more deeply when I was with Mini-Corps.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history, Gallardo worked in local schools with migrant children, serving as an outdoor educator; as a mental health client specialist in a community counseling center in Santa Cruz; and as the lead organizer for the Graton Day Labor Center. He joined LandPaths four years ago.

As the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit’s outreach and diversity director, Gallardo fervently believes in the importance of connecting underprivileged Sonoma County children and families to the land, to improve their physical and mental health as well as to enhance the communities in which they live.

“There is such an abundance of beauty in Sonoma County,” Gallardo said, “and many people have worked hard to keep it that way. But the demographics are changing. If we want to develop stewards to care for the land in the next generation, everyone must have opportunities to be exposed to its beauty and importance. People won’t understand what they haven’t been exposed to, but once they see and enjoy that beauty they’ll want to protect it.

“So that’s why we reach out to folks who haven’t been able to connect to Sonoma County’s land. We want to reroot kids and families with the land, expose them to agricultural and open space areas. The future depends on it.”

At LandPaths, Gallardo has created programs that help underprivileged children and families venture into nature.

The Inspired Forward program brings teens into the outdoors four times a year, allowing them to undertake land stewardships and other projects. Vamos Afuera, a monthly Spanish-speaking guided getaway, makes it comfortable for Latinos to visit the county’s open spaces.

“A few weeks ago we were in Cloverdale,” Gallardo said. “Next month we’ll be on East Sonoma Mountain. Once a year we have a camping trip to Yosemite for families who have never had the opportunity to go there.”

Gallardo also serves as liaison between the city of Santa Rosa and the Rosewood neighborhood’s 6-acre Bayer Farm.

One of the most difficult aspects of Gallardo’s work these days is convincing family members who labor five or six days a week to go on a hike or help maintain a trail.

“I’m from a migrant family,” he said. “I know how hard it is to work in the fields. So asking someone to come out and help develop a trail on their time off doesn’t pan out too well. It takes multiple encounters, explaining why it’s healthy and rewarding to spend time on the land. But I think it’s changing. The health aspects are driving people. They want to come out more and more.

“The thing is, we can’t always assume that government or other entities are going to do the best for us. We have to invest in our own community and underline the protection of our land … We all have the responsibility to protect what we have for our children. The Earth depends on it.”

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