At the Peterstown Community Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jessica Frago supports the Urban Agriculture program by showing a group of seniors the best way to harvest basil and pick just-red tomatoes from the vine to further ripen on the windowsill. She knows that diving into hands-on work is the best way to build up a community. “People start caring when people start doing,” she says with a knowing smile.
An Americorps/DOI VISTA fulfilling her second year of service with Groundwork Elizabeth, Jessica speaks about her Groundwork experience from a place of wisdom well beyond her 26 years. She enjoys “the opportunity to share knowledge, help people become interconnected, and bridge an intergenerational gap.” She practically vibrates with excitement when talking about getting people young and old together “outside doing outdoor stuff.”
Jessica first engaged teens and elders alongside one another this past year when Groundwork Elizabeth received a Union County Plant-a-Seed grant to collectively build, plant, and install over 200 earth boxes and elevated vegetable beds in just two months’ time. Most days from May through August, she found herself in schoolyards, local parks, empty lots, and even on City Hall grounds building vegetable boxes that have been tended ever since by the students and seniors, with support from Groundwork Elizabeth’s Green Team, its environmental youth development program for local teens. Jessica taught Green Team members and the seniors in classes designed to help the new gardeners learn about, prepare, and cook the vegetables they’d grown. “Everyone’s been really excited about the prospect of growing their own fresh vegetables,” she says.
Finding joy in “working outdoors, building things, and getting dirty” hasn’t always been a part of Jessica’s life. Born in the Philippines, Jessica and her family immigrated to the United States when she was just five years old. She doesn’t remember much about her former home, only that she played outside quite a bit. Her family settled in Jersey City, New Jersey, where her dad worked as a mechanic for the post office, and the rest of her coming-of-age was spent in the bustling city across the river from Manhattan. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of parks nearby. “We didn’t do a lot of outdoor recreation,” she recalls, “because of the lack of space and interest.”
After high school, Jessica enrolled at Kean University, near Elizabeth. “I started out in physical therapy,” she recalls, “but I quickly lost interest.” As part of her academic requirements, Jessica had to complete one elective. She ended up choosing a class that changed the course of her life forever: Ecology. She became a devoted student of plant ecologist Dr. Daniela Shebitz, who helped Jessica chart her course as an environmentalist. “I loved Dr. Shebitz, especially her enthusiasm for the subject,” Jessica beams. “As part of the class requirements, we had to spend a lot of time in the field … the more I worked outside, the more I wanted to be outdoors.” Dr. Shebitz and her ecology class made such an impression on Jessica that she changed her major to Sustainability Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology.
"In my line of work, you don’t see a lot of people who look like me… I realized I have a responsibility to change that."
When Dr. Shebitz learned of a new position with Groundwork Elizabeth, an organization that she supports in its efforts to raise the capacity of Elizabeth residents to take on local environmental challenges, she urged Jessica to apply. At Groundwork, Jessica could help create programs to raise area residents’ awareness of conservation efforts along the Elizabeth River. Jessica accepted the job, which included promoting resident engagement in environmental activities at both the nearby Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and within the City of Elizabeth.
During her hours at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) refuge, Jessica conducted numerous biological surveys of flora and fauna and learned to control invasive plants with the timed application of herbicides. Jessica’s commitment and passion for the work resonated with her USFWS colleagues. She also made a big impression on Jonathan Phillips, Groundwork Elizabeth’s executive director, who secured an Americorps/VISTA position to support Jessica’s continuing employment with Groundwork after the USFWS-supported job ended. During her hours in the city, she assisted Groundwork Elizabeth with writing grants, creating strategies for fundraisers, and engaging local residents in the outdoors through outreach and marketing. In addition to fundraising and community engagement, Jessica also started designing interpretive signs for Groundwork’s signature project, the Elizabeth River Trail, as well as a new self-guided trail at Phil Rizzuto Park.
Diving head-first into new experiences and finding meaning is a common thread through all of Jessica’s Groundwork engagements. As she reflects on this notion, one thing she says she’s learned “… is about responsibility … here that word takes on a whole new meaning.” She clarifies: “In my line of work, you don’t see a lot of people who look like me… I realized I have a responsibility to change that. At first my family was skeptical of me entering the environmental field,” she pauses. “They didn’t understand the need for change. But once they saw me… with Groundwork over a number of years, they’ve come to appreciate the meaning of this work and what it’s doing for the community I serve.”
The other thing Jessica learned with Groundwork is the importance of promoting access to public lands. “I now feel that the protection of public land is more important than ever. We need to protect more green spaces, especially here in Elizabeth.” As part of her responsibilities at Groundwork, Jessica helps to organize the Tour de Elizabeth, a community bike ride and fundraiser that showcases Groundwork’s environmental work in the city. The popular annual ride, now in its fifteenth year, attracts people from all over the area. “My job was to seek out new partners and also help people register for the event. So many people told me how much they looked forward to this and asked if there was anything they could do to help.”
Reflecting on the meaning of this event to the community, Jessica’s voice rises with excitement: “Everyone comes out for this event. We had over 750 registrants. It’s hard to get an exact count, because so many locals see the riders going by and just join in … You see the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and lots of families joining in. I think that’s when I realized how important this work is,” Jessica says. “People do feel stuck indoors, and they want to get outside. When it seems like the whole city wants to join in, you realize that they want to be outdoors, and you know how important it is to create places where they can do just that and feel safe and see something natural.”