TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A healthy garden, by definition, grows. Planted in early 2010 as the Druid City Garden Project with plots for students to get their hands dirty growing and tending organic vegetables, the newly renamed Schoolyard Roots now operates in 11 Tuscaloosa area schools, seven in the city and four in the county system.

As Schoolyard Roots continues to thrive, planning to spread its mission statewide, new leadership is being sought, after its first executive director, Lindsay Turner Trammell, stepped down Sept. 1 to attend graduate school. Eric Courchesne is serving as interim until the best candidate is found.

Begun by Andy and Rashmi Grace, Emily Tipps and Adam Weinstein, Schoolyard Roots — it took on the new name in July — was incorporated to help educate kids about healthy and sustainable food choices. In the process of planting, tending and harvesting produce, students can learn botany, geography, nutrition and more, while working on team-building and getting fresh-air exercise.

Within a couple of years, the project had just enough funding to make a job offer to a University of Alabama graduate who'd volunteered with the group from early days.

"It was completely unexpected, especially when the words 'executive director' came out of their mouths," said Trammell, in a Skype interview from Cambridge, England. "'Are you sure?'

"They were only able to guarantee me (a job) for six months, at very low pay. Every seed, every purchase, was a big strain on our budget," she said.

After five years though, she felt the time was ripe, the work of the program now spread among a staff of 10, for her to move on and attend grad school at the University of Cambridge, near where she grew: Her family moved when she was about 13. Trammell earned her bachelor's at UA in musical theater, with a double minor in classical music and sustainable food systems.

"Half my family is in England, but my parents are in the states," she said. "Cambridge was definitely my first choice. My father went here, so there's a legacy ... One of the things Cambridge is known for, streams and canals run through the city, so we'd take day trips up here to go punting (boating) as a family.

"I wanted to see this country with adult eyes."

She's studying public policy, addressing systemic issues on the governmental level, and expects to return to the nonprofit world post-graduation. Her husband Brad's at the London School of Economics, an hour commute, studying environmental policy and regulation, focusing on energy and climate change. Cambridge compresses what's three years of study in the U.S. into one year, but the Trammells hope to stay on somewhat longer. After that, they'll be looking for jobs wherever they might be, ideally in the states, she said.

Moving four and a half years past that initial job offer was an accomplishment in itself, but Trammell points also to the sheer numbers of students and schools served, over two systems, the community engagement shown at the annually sold-out Garden Party benefits, and the not only measurable but measured positive effects.

Working with the Caroline Boxmeyer, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Alabama, Schoolyard Roots tracks effectiveness via students' enthusiasm for their gardens, willingness to try and eat more vegetables, and involvement in meal preparation at home. Numbers typically rise, except in the BMI (body mass index) rates, where studies show obesity is dropping in the four schools surveyed.

And the work also held intangibles.

"For me, personally, there's nothing more satisfying than seeing a five-year-old pull a carrot out of the ground," she said. "If you're ever despairing of the state of the world, go to one of our gardens and watch the kids work. ... Their faces just light up."

As with many startups, Schoolyard Roots called for more than 9 to 5 investment, Trammell said.

"You're doing 8 to 8, seven days a week sometimes," she said. "That kind of commitment means a lot of yourself is tied up in the work. It can be scary: What does that work become when you're not there? What will you be without that work?"

But she's happy knowing it's in "phenomenal hands" with Courchesne, who'd worked as development director for Schoolyard Roots, and has created the non-profit incubator Oak Consulting.

"I'm helping the team conduct a strategic plan, where we want to go for the next five to 10 years," he said. "I want to help them do more with the money they have, figure out how to be more efficient with their resources."

Schoolyard Roots' mission and methods, its experiential learning, is crucial to our future, he said.

"Improving education is the silver bullet, if we want to solve most of the world's problems," Courchesne said. He points out Alabama is in the bottom third of states academically, and in the top third for childhood obesity: Schoolyard Roots attacks both issues head-on.

What the executive director position requires, Trammell said, is someone with a passion for the work, strong management and interpersonal skills, and ability to interpret and incorporate data. And as with any nonprofit, fundraising experience is important. With a growing staff, it's important to have an experienced team manager, Courchesne said.

"We're looking for a seasoned leader, first and foremost, whether it's from the profit or non-profit sector," he said. That captain should focus on retaining the young, talented people on staff, to help them"... become as fully realized as they can, as employees and people. We're not going to hollow out our constituents. It's a family, and we want a family that's healthy, happy and balanced."

A banner on www.schoolyardroots.org leads to a hiring page with full job description. The application deadline is Friday, after which Schoolyard Roots hopes to begin interviewing. The process could extend if they're not satisfied, Courchesne said. "I will stay on as long as it takes to find the right candidate. It's too important an organization to have anything less than the ideal candidate in the position."

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com