Fund helps America take care of its own backyard

Prison inmates growing and selling their own vegetables are thanking the America the Beautiful Fund. So are residents near the revamped mission area of San Luis Obispo, Calif. -- first planned by young design students who, concerned that the town was turning its back on its heritage, asked the fund for help. And so are visitors sharing in a fund-sponsored artists-in-residence program at Palisades Interstate Park in New York-New Jersey.

One might say that the America the Beautiful Fund is dedicated to the idea that Yankee ingenuity is alive and well. Project director Nanine Bilski says the fund is intended to provide opportunities and encouragement for groups "to take care of their own backyards," and use their initiative to save or improve their communities. Since 1965, the modest nonprofit organization has aided over 5,000 citizen-initiated projects -- mostly in art, nature, or heritage -- in communities across the country.

"What makes America the beautiful is practically every square inch of the country, "she says. "The way this country was built is the way it has to be saved, which is town by town, block by block, farm by farm. I sometimes say, just imagine if the country had been built by the Department of Housing and Urban development or General Motors. We wouldn't have any New England towns or Old South or California missions."

She says that while people may not be able to solve big technological or economic problems facing their communities, they can save and preserve what makes each community unique and bring it to the next generation. Many times, what the fund does is pass on information on types of projects happening in other areas.

"We try to encourage their sense of creative problem-solving, not just to do another house-museum, not just to do another park that looks like every other park, not just to do another oral history and type it verbatim in a transcript, but to make creative use of it."

Occasionally, the fund will give "seed" money -- almost always under $1,000, and more as a symbolic gesture.

"It shows that they're being nationally recognized for doing something," says Ms. Bilski. "That little bit of money is like the scholarship that lets you go to college so you can become a newspaper writer or something. It's that little bit that you need at the beginning to get started."

Those "little bits" have had good results. When the fund did a survey of about $50,000 of the seed grants to see what happened with them, it found the grants had generated over $6 million worth of programs and projects.

One project, she says, was "so simple it's one of those genius things you wonder why nobody thought about it before." A New York architect noted that it was almost impossible to get good fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. Meanwhile farmers in New Jersey and New York had wonderful vegetables but couldn't get supermarkets to buy them. He approached the America the Beautiful Fund with the idea of starting farmers' markets right in the middle of the city.

"If you've ever tried to do anything in Boston or New York -- by the time you get all the permits and everything else. . .," Ms. Bilsi laughs. "But the architect was impressive enough that we thought he could pull it off. So we gave him a $750 grant, which basically bought him the time to make the phone calls, buy stamps, go from one office to another, and find the farmers.

"On the basis of what he had lined up he was then able to get sponsorships from the Council on the Environment, and a grant from the J. M. Kaplan Fund. But we took the initial risk. If we hadn't bought him that time, given him that encouragement, put him in touch with the people we knew, made some phone calls for him, given his credibility an extra boost, that wouldn't have started. Now there are five greenmarkets in New York grossing millions of dollars a year, putting money into the pockets of upstate farmers who otherwise wouldn't have it and bringing beautiful produce and vegetables to city people.

The artists-in-residence program at Palisades Interstate Park provides art and interpretative programs, helping people see parks as more than just places to swim and fish. Visitors can visit the artists' studios as well as see exhibits. They can also go on guided nature art adventure hikes, and look at nature through artists' eyes.

Another project was restoration of the 19th-century Sonnenberg Gardens in Canadaigua, N.Y., one of America's most elaborate public gardens.

Volunteers first tried to raise $1 million for the restoration, an impossible goal, says Ms. Bilski. The fund people then suggested the volunteers do the restoration themselves and joined in the project by helping dig up and transplant 5,000 rose bushes from an abandoned nursery to start restoring the rose garden. Once that was done, the volunteers went on to restore the Italian Garden, the Blue and White Garden, and the Japanese Garden.

Still another project -- Operation Greenplant -- is being implemented all over the country. Last year 60,000 packets of flower and vegetable seeds were given out to people who had innovative ways of using them -- including horticultural therapy at prisons.

"We're showing people that if they can put their energies to something and do it as a public service, there's no miracle they can't perform," says Ms. bilski. "They can really transform the places where they live and save what's beautiful in America."

The Washington-based organization is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Arts Council, foundations, and 35, 000 contributors. Getting public money, says Ms. Bilski, is tricky "because basically public government programs try to restrict and harness free kinds of citizen-initiated things -- they want everything to fit into nice boxes."

Then she adds with a laugh, "You see, if we show that you can do something for $500 that would have cost $50,000 if it were done through a government program, they don't like that kind of information to get out."

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