The AMS Senior Fellows


Susanna Byrd is working at Project Grows

Update from Susanna on her Senior Fellowship year: I am honored to follow in the Senior Fellowship footsteps of Lisa Millette and Jenna Clarke by serving at Project GROWS.  Project GROWS is an educational farm that connects area youth to healthy food and nutrition through interactive visits to our 10-acre farm site in Verona, VA. We cultivate between 2 and 3 acres of this site in vegetables, which we sell through a CSA, Farmers’ Market and donate to the Boys and Girls Club and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

My role has been focused on marketing and outreach; I advertised, sold and manage the 21 member CSA program, a significant source of funding for our work this year at Project GROWS. I also attend both the Farmers’ Market in Waynesboro on Saturdays and the North Augusta Farmers’ Market in Verona on Wednesdays to sell Project GROWS produce. I helped Project GROWS take over management of the North Augusta Farmers Market, which is an important outlet for local vendors and customers to support local economy and increased food access. I acted as Market Manager during that transition. I also help Project GROWS share its work with the community through press releases, radio and newspaper ads and stories and by starting a regular blog.

In addition to these specific activities, I participate in the daily functioning of the farm as an ever-producing, ever-educating hub of activity. I work with visiting youth groups from schools, camps and the Boys and Girls Club. I am intimately involved in planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing and everything in between that brings vegetables to the hands and mouths of community members. The work is hard and requires the ability to multitask and be flexible. But seeing a group of teenagers sitting with plates full of garlic-sauteed chard and commenting that they “love the greens” and want more? That is at the verdant, joyful heart of what I do.

The story of how I arrived at the Allegheny Mountain School begins with a wild mushroom hunt, a wineberry, a horse-plowed garden and parents who taught me a love of exploring the natural world. In the Blue Ridge Mountains northwest of Charlottesville, I grew up making my own fun, constantly learning from the woods and the streams. I have always held dear that ability to observe and connect with nature, but my understanding of the way humans relate to the land was really challenged and deepened when I went to Kenyon College in the agricultural center of Ohio. At first, I struggled to reconcile the two major focuses of my studies there: International Studies and Environmental Science. But in the process of seeing and learning about the richness of local cultures, the intricacies of globalization and the exploitation of natural resources, I found myself returning repeatedly to the doorstep of the same conclusion: that community and sustainable cultivation of the earth are at the true heart of humanity. This conviction was strongly reinforced as I interned on a livestock farm in Ohio and then volunteered on various farms in South America after graduating. I began to realize that though living in nature was a beautiful way to grow up, I still had a lot to learn about actual self-sufficiency and connection to the processes that sustain us. At AMS I hope to continue that education- to find in farming the reconciliation of nature and human design and to then touch and heal other lives with the charismatic power of food.

Amanda Henkler is Nutrition Fellow at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

Update from Mandy on her Senior Fellowship year:  I started my journey at the Allegheny Mountain School hopeful that I would come out on the other side happier with the woman I am and with a clear idea of the life I want to live. As I go further into my Senior Fellowship, I feel more confident with each passing day. I currently serve as the Nutrition Fellow at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, creating recipes and food samples for various child-hunger programs, managing a community garden, and helping with food distributions at several of the Food Bank’s partner pantries.  One of the best parts of the fellowship is being able to interact with our clients, hear their stories, and share hope for a brighter day. It has been an incredible journey seeing the meaning of food from their point of view.

Coming into AMS, my focus was on local, organic, small-scale farming and community. I continue to think about these topics daily, but now I also think about food security, the disparity in income equality, and the stigma of asking for help in our society. Before AMS, I looked at these topics and became overwhelmed wondering how they tied in together and what action I could take. I now understand that a solid community of people can come together to foster support for those in need, whether through financial or emotional support, or just the simple act of bringing a meal to a neighbor in need. Food is powerful. For some, it brings anxiety in not knowing where their next meal might come from. For others, it warms their heart when a friend brings by a meal to share. After working at AMS and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, I know that I will spend my life making sure I am helping fill people’s hearts with joy and friendship, and their bellies with tasty and energizing food.  

My name is Mandy Henkler and I am a recent graduate of the University of Vermont, with a Bachelors of Science in Community Entrepreneurship and Food Systems. I grew up in a Northwestern suburb of Philadelphia where school was a daily chore and I loved food but never considered how my meals got to my plate. After moving to Burlington, Vermont in 2008, I found myself surrounded by not only a few food lovers, but an entire city focused on food sustainability, healthful food, and fairly raised farm crops. As I became more involved in my Food Systems studies in school I quickly realized that my passion for food was not going to fade anytime soon and I decided to take the leap and try farming for myself. After graduation I moved to the Champlain Islands in Vermont to work on an organic, diversified farm as well as a family run apple orchard.  I absolutely loved working outside everyday and interacting with the wonderful community surrounding the food world, but struggled with how I could make a farming lifestyle realistic and feasible.

After the farming season ended in Vermont I moved home to Pennsylvania for the winter to figure out what the next step on my food journey would be. Moving to a suburban area where curb appeal is more important than how efficiently you use your lawn was a major culture shock. I found myself losing a grip on my organic farming passion and my hope for a sustainable food system. I began applying for food systems jobs all over the country but realized I didn’t have the amount of experience working in the agriculture field to earn any job I was interested in. Just as I was losing hope in my employment search I found the Allegheny Mountain School. AMS has the perfect mix of the education, independence, and community I am so honored to be here spending my days learning, sharing, laughing and growing with such a wonderful group of people in one of the most magical and beautiful places on earth.

Kate Hopkins is working at Valley Conservation Council

Update from Kate Hopkins:  In my Senior Fellowship, I serve Valley Conservation Council- a non-profit conservation land trust- four days per week, and Mary Baldwin College- a small, diverse women’s college with an emphasis on leadership. At VCC, my work focuses on Ag Vitality: programs that support a flourishing local foods economy, which in turn supports working agricultural lands. I launched and administer the Agriculture Cultivates Resilient EconomieS (ACRES) grant program through partnership with the Staunton Creative Community Fund- a new-economy lending institution and small-business incubator. The ACRES grant program combines a small grant with business training and support to help local farms and food businesses who are committed to excellence in water quality stewardship. I’ve been studying financial permaculture and getting involved with some reimagining of financial structures in the Staunton Community. My other calling at VCC is getting folks outside and connected to nature. I’m planning some events to facilitate nature connection in her community for children and adults.

At Mary Baldwin I am managing a few different garden spaces and building them into welcoming spaces that invite students to step away from their everyday lives and connect to nature and to food. I’m also interested in starting up a conversation about Outdoor Leadership and how harvesting beets or climbing mountains can show us our ability to overcome challenges in our academic, professional, and personal lives. I’ve been studying nature connection facilitation through Jon Young’s Art of Mentoring model and the Richard Louv’s Children and Nature Network model, and I’m enjoying working in this educational setting and being able to put some of it into practice.

I grew up moving around throughout mostly the Southeast. At University of South Carolina as a student of International Studies and Anthropology, I was especially interested in hunger, justice, and traditional wisdom. It was through this lens that I came to grow passionate about the local food movement: one of socioeconomic and cultural renewal alongside personal empowerment. I took a course which featured a service learning component in my school’s permaculture garden and was changed. I loved the deep thoughtfulness, emphasis on resilience, and long eye towards the future I saw in the permaculture mindset. I wanted to build a life like that.

I did a senior thesis film project documenting the local foods scene in my town. I loved doing the interviews: from gravelly voiced Derek covered in Grateful Dead tattoos ripping up his front lawn for pole beans and giving them to his somewhat alarmed neighbors, to a bow-tied, old-school, strict agrarian academic talking about Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a grow-your-own America. I interviewed Sarah, whose crack and crime-torn neighborhood had been transformed by her small community garden patch of watermelon and collards. She said she wasn’t afraid to confront drug dealers, ask them what they were doing and offer them tomatoes.

I moved to rural northwest Virginia in 2010 after I graduated from college, and I spent two years working for the Piedmont Environmental Council as Special Events Coordinator- where I mostly learned alliance and relationship building and results-driven program management. I also threw a party at Robert Duvall’s house on my third day on the job. I studied permaculture in Crozet, Virginia in winter 2012- a process which inspired me to start to consciously design the arc of my life and career. I left PEC in January to volunteer with a school garden project in Burkina Faso.

I’m stoked for my first full-time growing season here at AMS and to get to know this mountain. I’m interested in design, marketing, and communication in local foods economies. I’m also interested in old time fiddle and photography. Drop me a line at

Paul Krysik is this year’s AMS Village Manager

Update from Paul on his role as AMS Village Manager: I am honored to say that I am the 2014 Village Manager here at the Allegheny Mountain School. The Village Manager roles and responsibilities encompass plentiful elements of Phase 1. These include teaching and mentoring new Fellows, planning and caring for the AMS Farm, organizing and leading daily activities, to co-designing and implementing curriculum involving gardening, permaculture, teaching, leadership, and wellness. A big thank you goes out to my cohort and the 2013 Village Managers for helping me prepare for this position by including me in a supportive and dynamic community. Now I strive to recreate the same ideal learning and growing environment so that my 2014 Fellows can go out and recharge and cultivate thriving communities. AMS is now well into its fourth year and emerging as a resilient and growing community. Even though AMS may be a young organization, the impact it has made in me, the region, and the wider movement has and will ripple for countless of years to come. 

My story begins on Chicago’s Southside where I was born and raised. I could not help but realize many inequalities and injustices throughout my neighborhoods. Anger and confusion would boil in me when I thought about “the system” and authority figures’ blind acceptance of this. Most of my time was focused on non-constructive rebellion and wishing for the next escape. Fortunately, the Boy Scouts of America helped bring balance to my life by offering this escape. A feeling of peace would come over me when I am out and attempting to connect with nature.
During my last two years of high school, a great history teacher of mine introduced me into the world of activism. Taking my anger and channeling it into progressive energy and motivation, I worked many afterschool hours on issues such as gang violence, education funding, and community engagement. Through the Mikva Challenge, I organized city-wide student rallies, conducted workshop summits, and advised Chicago Public School’s Chief Executive Office at the time, Arnie Duncan.  Feelings of accomplishment and independence came over me during these two years as I realized that I have a voice, and people actually cared what I had to say.

I was then blessed with the means to go to Oberlin College for the next four years because of the Posse Foundation. My education, close student family, and the culture of Oberlin College helped me discover the food movement where the multitude of issue I am passionate about intersected. Through finding a mentor in a food justice professor, working in urban gardens in Cleveland, and two summers on an organic farm, I found my life’s calling and a way to keep myself and communities sustainable.  I strive to go back home take the lessons AMS, Oberlin, Posse, and Mikva has taught me to run my own urban farm and education center on the Southside of Chicago to build a truly healthy community.

Emily Melvin is working at the VSDB Educational Farm

Growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania, farming has always held a place near and dear to my heart. As a kid I loved playing in the woods and I was proud of the dirt smudges on my face. It was a wonderful place to observe and participate in nature and it certainly influenced the way I view the world. Nature seemed so simple and so exciting at the same time.  Then that inevitable thing happens when a kid feels they must grow up, move to the city, lose their sense of playfulness and get a job in the “real world.” Well, I was no exception to this phenomenon and spent my college years struggling to figure out my future as a contributing member to society. Then I stumbled upon the urban farm on campus and started working at a local farmers market, and something clicked. It made perfect sense. Every question I had about how to help people economically, socially, and physically was answered. Local sustainable farms could feed people incredible healthy food in a more just and transparent way while also supporting families and communities in rural areas. Not to mention, I felt I was meant to get my hands dirty again.

Several farms apprenticeships and personal epiphanies later, I am still enthralled with farming and have witnessed first-hand the community building potential of strong local food systems. I truly believe that individual as well as communal vitality can improve with more local sustainable farms.  I am beyond excited to continue my agricultural journey with AMS as a 2013 Fellow. Thanks to AMS I will be able to master new and old skills regarding living simply and harmoniously with the natural world as well as have the opportunity to live with nine other fellows who share the same passion about growing their own food and supporting local food systems in communities throughout the region.

Whitney McDermott is working at City Schoolyard Gardens

I spent the majority of my young life outside, exploring the trees, fields, and creeks around my home.  I cannot escape these memories so filled with a sense of connection to the land.  When I am outside, I feel alive.  I believe that many of the qualms of today’s society can be traced to a disconnection between today’s lifestyle and the natural cycles of the great outdoors.  While I thought I was aware of this, it wasn’t until I traveled across the country by bike that I not only realized my own disconnection but also how strongly I desire to live more intentionally – a life of simplicity, balance, and a strong connection to family, friends, and the outdoors.

For the last eight years, I’ve studied at the University of Virginia, exploring community design through engineering, urban planning, and architecture. As a student, I designed places that engage the community and attempt to encourage a sense of living in connection to the outside world. I long to extend this to design in the real world – helping create environments where people feel empowered, comfortable, and healthy. But, before I can do this, I feel I have more to learn about behavior and design, community and health.

This is how I find myself at the Allegheny Mountain School. I believe that a building or structure can only go so far in strengthening community and invigorating a culture. Just as important, if not more basic, I think food and agriculture have the ability to bring people together in meaningful ways. For this, I look forward to learning from my cohorts about working with resources at hand and working creatively to produce and sustain the relationships that bond community.

Ben Samuelson is working at the VSDB Educational Farm

Since I was small my parents let me mix stuff up and make messes in the kitchen.  My enduring interest in cooking since early childhood grew into an interest in Biology and gardening.

I discovered the food movement while studying Biology at Hendrix College in Arkansas.  While living in small eco-friendly themed residence called the Eco-House I managed the student garden at Hendrix.  My housemates and I regularly shared the produce at house meals and bigger feasts on Friday that included friends from outside the Eco-House.  In my family a special meal prepared from scratch is  a special symbol of showing care for each-other.  I first got to bring this expression of good will to a broader community through meals at the Eco-house.  These feasts came to be a meaningful practice for some friends who still talk about those dinners. I felt how food, community, and deep satisfaction are all rolled into one and realized that if I could throw myself into creating more spaces like that, I would be serving myself and others very well.

To deepen my awareness of food I proposed a project to investigate traditional food production methods around the world.  The Walker Fellowship Grant funded my project to travel to Italy, Indonesia, Central America, Ireland and Turkey to live and work with artisan food makers who make traditional foods on a small scale.  My horizons expanded and the more I learned the less I felt I knew and all that jazz, but my biggest discovery was that I felt so depleted by the itinerant routine I followed.  It was a shock to be so uprooted from the community I had come to depend on at Hendrix.  My passion for feeding people has just as much to do with those relationships as the food.

Ian Sawyer is working at New Community Project

For the most part, my life has been spun around the Pacific.  Significant parts of my personal history are portioned off into time spent in Japan, Hawaiʻi and California. Growing up bi-racial and bi-cultural, interlaced with inter-Pacific migrations, has left me disoriented when it comes to understanding my place in the world. As a result of all this translocation, I have yearned much to dig deeper into my identity, my spirit, my relation to people, my connection to earth, and to life itself.  This longing has pushed me to, among other things, study social movements in Ecuador, research urban agriculture in Cuba, do community organizing for environmental justice in Los Angeles, fight the spread of GMOs in India, apprentice with a traditional drumming group in Japan, and most recently participate in urban gardening as part of a Hawaiian sovereignty movement on the Big Island.  I have unearthed parts of myself in all of these different communities where people were fighting for integrity and dignity, striving to raise healthy families, seeking a society that cares for its people, and trying to heal and reconcile relationships to each other and to mother nature.

In a world wrought with binary thinking that artificially separates one from another, I have come to realize that through the seemingly simple act of gardening, of listening to and communicating with the earth, of sowing the seeds of life, we can begin to heal our fractured relationships and become whole again.  I believe in the earth’s generosity; through the AMS fellowship, I hope to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to start urban gardens to spread this message of generosity and love to heal our souls, our soils, and our societies.

Roger Woo is working at Project Grows

As long as I can remember, food has been my life-long love. Its colours, scents, tastes across seasons has transported me all over the far reaches of the world, from my gap year in rural Indonesia to the Farm to Table restaurants of my most recent home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

I remember learning how to cook from a twenty-seat restaurant in Hong Kong, how to drive oxen in Uganda as I toyed with sundried tomatoes in the equatorial sun, and how to work with high schoolers on their school gardens, blossoming in sunshine with their own plants. My endless indulgence toyed with boundless curiosity, driving me to discover not just where to find the best eats, but also my food’s journey and that of those who toiled to nurture and prepare it as I nurture myself through their love.

The cloak of seasons draped upon me as I farmed in rural Africa, clutching to the bosom of the Earth. The savoury scent of butter suffused me as I cooked to the tapping of the kitchen printer in Vancouver restaurants. Still, I lament for the thousand lifetimes I will need to experience the true extent of our humanity, ensconced in the stories, traditions, and identities of nourishment we have developed. Even with my whole life devoted to its mastery, only but the smallest portion could be revealed to me.

Eating is the most sacred and humbling of loves. We take life at the behest of each breath, a part of the world dying to provide for the pleasure of taste, continuing a sacrosanct ritual of giving death.

There is no love more sincere than that for food itself.



Find out about the events, workshops, farming and life as an AMS Fellow.

Allegheny Mountain School (AMS) is a project of The Highland Center, located in Monterey, Virginia. It’s mission is to serve all citizens of Highland County by being a catalyst for cultural and economic development, and to preserve a historic landmark as a symbol of unity and community pride. [Read More]

Story.Dawn1 Read about this season’s workshops and instructors.


Allegheny Mountain School PartnersPhase II of the AMS Fellowship is spent working for a non-profit for one year.

In 2014, AMS Senior Fellows will be working for these organizations in our region focused on local food, conservation and strengthening communities.

City Schoolyard Garden
Project Grows
New Community Project
Valley Conservation Council
Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind

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