The Keney Park Urban Agriculture Education site teaches composting, gardening, aquaponics, and hydroponics, with a goal of connecting people to the healing power of nature. Head of it all is Herb Virgo, who puts in many volunteer hours along with support from the local community to bring his sustainability visions to life.
“We’re trying to create an outdoor classroom so that different schools, churches, and community-based organizations have space where they can come to learn all different aspects of urban agriculture. They can come here and learn how to compost, they can learn how to create an aquaponics system, they can learn how to build furniture. We want to be an outdoor classroom. We want Keney Park to be that space where people say, ‘Hey we can learn how to do anything over there,’” says Herb.
Born and raised in Hartford, Herb Virgo’s love for nature developed as a young boy. “My grandmother loved her rose bushes, so as a grandchild the highlight of my childhood was to take care of the yard and see my grandmother’s reaction.”
Later on, Herb left Hartford and moved to Florida. When he returned home, he found himself missing nature. Keney Park became the closest thing that he had to the wilderness, so he started spending a lot of time at the park. When he helped coordinate the Family Day Festival, he saw that supporting the park was his calling. “The resources just weren’t there as they were in the past so we started thinking about how could we utilize our organization … to help the community and help the park,” says Herb.
In 2012, when they first started using the name ‘Keney Park Sustainability’, people were looking at Herb and his team as if they were crazy. As time went on and sustainability became a more widely used term, Herb saw locals becoming more strategic about how they move and operate in order to sustain themselves.
With the Keney Park Sustainability project, “People are starting to feel like someone is stewarding the park… I think people are starting to see a lot more activity in Keney, and our goal is to get the community to take ownership of it,” Herb says.
One of Herb’s goals is to get more children from the neighborhood into the park, but a lot of schools don’t have the resources to transfer the kids to the Keney Park site. So Herb has been focusing his efforts on trying to figure out a way to reach out to churches in the neighborhoods that have vans. He wants to create an opportunity to get these kids into the park to learn more about what’s going on in environmental stewardship and sustainability.
“It’s interesting because as close as a lot of young people in the neighborhood are to the park, a lot of them spend very little time in the park… or know very little about the park. I think the biggest surprise to me is always when you tell them what a treasure this park is and how close they’ve been to this treasure for so long… seeing that mental shift, seeing that spark to want to learn and experience more about the park and what it has to offer,” says Herb.
Herb has not only seen his initiatives positively impact those inside Keney Park but those outside as well. His team has provided an opportunity to grow their own food on site to local families. “That empowerment to be able to grow your own food has definitely been something that we have witnessed and been amazed at. We understand that the food that we eat is not the best for us. And a lot of people that are doing things out there that they shouldn’t be are trying to feed themselves and feed their families. So if you give them the power to feed themselves, you change their lives… you change everything. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Herb.
As far as the future of Keney Park, Herb is looking to activate the park as a whole and restore the park to what its creators intended it to be, which is a healing environment for the community. They have been throwing around ideas about having an outdoor environmental amphitheater or creating a health center connected to the trails. Herb’s goal would be to see what they have already started creating there at the very northern section of the park spread to the south.
Being active within the Hartford community is nothing new to Herb. “The number of different cultures existing in one place I think is one of the most fascinating things about Hartford,” he says. His grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the West Indian Club. His great aunt was a community activist for many years, and his uncle was the president of Friends of Keney Park and is now president of Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz. “So I came from a family that was extremely active in the community. The fact that our family has been doing things in the community for a while… I have to say I’m honored to try to carry that torch.”