Dr. Ivette Ruiz has dedicated her career to community service. A bilingual and bicultural third generation new farmer, first-generation doctoral graduate, and lifelong humanitarian, she has volunteered for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National American Red Cross since high school, later becoming the Head of Disability and Integration for the Connecticut and Rhode Island Region FEMA Territory 1 service area. Her job, while admirable, required her to be away from her family for extended periods, and as she said goodbye to her grandchildren one day while swinging in a hammock, the hammock broke on one end, leaving Ivette with a traumatic brain injury.
“That changed my life forever,” Ivette said. “I went from a very healthy person who was working locally, nationally, and internationally, doing all kinds of work—to losing my memory, losing my speech, losing the ability to walk, losing cognition, and many things that most people have. I went from a higher education level, to a fourth to sixth grade level…I’ve come a long, long way. But during the time that I was recovering, I went through a very dark time in my life, where I didn’t remember my children’s birthdays, [or] regular everyday things. I could barely speak. It was really, really hard.”
It was during this period that Ivette found solace in the outdoors. She began spending more time in nature, and was given saplings to replace the trees on her property that were destroyed by hurricanes. Crucially, she also began growing food. She was given potato seeds, and after her first season she had grown over 300 pounds of crops (including potatoes) that were then donated to food-insecure communities at the height of the pandemic.
Through growing food and helping others, Ivette found new happiness in her life after the accident. “I found renewed hope, and renewed courage. [I] decided that while I always wanted to be a farmer and have a farm that served marginalized communities when I retired, I believe God allowed that to happen a lot sooner so that I could get practice.”
Having found peace in farming and tending to the soil, Ivette desired to share this experience with others who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. To do so, she founded Healing by Growing Farms (HBG), a Green Therapy Based Retreat & Educational Center for trauma recovery through farming. The organization is guided by the mission “Sanando (Healing) Our Brain, Our Spirit and Our Soil,” where trauma survivors learn about gardening, healing themselves, the environment, and building community. HBG is committed to educating and empowering farmers, fishermen, forest workers, and other community members whose lifestyles have been impacted by trauma or a disability with the goal of creating a more accessible and inclusive environment.
In April 2022, HBG’s work was recognized by Startup Yale, a cross-university collaboration between partners including Dwight Hall, Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking (Tsai CITY), and Yale School of Management that brings together Yale’s biggest entrepreneurship awards in a two-day conference. Ivette was awarded the New Haven Civic Innovation Prize, which is managed by Dwight Hall and provides up to $10,000 annually to the best student- or community-led venture or project focused on benefiting the City of New Haven. It was during this process that Ivette first met Johnny Scafidi ’01, Dwight Hall’s Director of Community Outreach and Engagement.
From the beginning, Ivette and Johnny were united in their dedication to service and to New Haven. “I discovered that [Johnny] has a passion for helping people, and that he is very authentic and unique about really listening to your story…and then helps you achieve your goals. So I said to him after the event, ‘I would like to stay in touch.’”
Since HBG won the Civic Innovation Prize, Dwight Hall has helped the organization grow in a myriad of ways. First, as stewards of the prize, the Hall assisted Ivette in securing a greenhouse, planters, and other materials to help grow the organization. Further, HBG was incorporated as a Dwight Hall Emerging Project in 2022. The program, which began two years ago and is managed by Johnny, allows Dwight Hall to provide more formal support to community initiatives through organizational management, consultations and mentoring, material resources like workspaces and office supplies, and financial support. For instance, because HBG was not incorporated as a nonprofit, Ivette’s winnings from the Civic Innovation Prize would have been taxed if not for HBG’s inclusion in the Emerging Projects program, which afforded it a fiscal sponsorship from Dwight Hall.
Johnny described the motivation of Dwight Hall to offer more support to community initiatives in New Haven. “The Hall realized that we wanted to more formally and consistently offer this kind of support. There’s a lot of demand from the community, and there’s a lot of demand from within Yale,” he said. He also pointed to other successful programs incorporated into the Emerging Projects sponsorship, including New Muses Project, a DEI-centered classical music organization that promotes justice and curiosity through performance, education, and scholarship. “New Muses is a great example of the support Dwight Hall can offer,” he explained. “Gloria Yin, who co-founded New Muses, was a graduate student in the Yale School of Music. She graduated and still had this idea, which is now one of our emerging projects.”
For HBG, Dwight Hall’s support has often taken the form of volunteers. Beginning with students participating in Dwight Hall’s FOCUS on New Haven Camp Yale program in 2022, undergraduates have assisted the organization in a myriad of ways. “We had our first FOCUS students last year,” reflected Ivette, “and it was an amazing experience. Those students work so hard…had it not been for them, I would not be where I’m at today—I would still be behind like a year and a half. Those students, for three days, worked super hard in the heat of the summer. From then on, it sort of snowballed…I had a big event that I did in February called the 1st Northeast Disability and Agricultural Conference. And I said, ‘Hey, Johnny, I could use some volunteers.’ …he was able to get a handful of students to come rotate and help out with registration and parking and all of that, which was a great experience.”
Going forward, Dwight Hall plans to continue supporting HBG and to expand its Emerging Projects program. The program is part of the Advance pillar of Dwight Hall’s three principles of program delivery: Engage, Grow, and Advance. As Johnny describes, “one of the ways we think about the Advance pillar is how to advance service and justice in New Haven and around the world with collaboration and partnership…If you think of advancing justice as extending and deepening partnerships between multiple entities so they can be more effective, Emerging Projects is a perfect example.”