Virginia Paca grows a special garden to feed friends, families, and the homeless hurting from the economy in Pasadena, California. She began planting her backyard garden two years ago, never thinking she’d be making a difference.
An architect and garden designer by trade, she’s now established her own personal food bank helping people in need with a bumper crop of fresh organic fruits and vegetables. A self-described risk-taker, she says her new calling is “cathartic.”
“I would like to leave people a little better than I found them and I’d like to leave the world better than I found it. If I could do that I would feel like I had a successful life.” Virginia Paca
My friend and reporter Stacey Gualandi met Virginia, where else?, in her abundant garden filled with heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, corn, watermelon, cucumbers, you name it, to find out what drives her desire to donate…
VIRGINIA: A garden symbolizes a balance with nature. It calms me down. Its a connection I need in my life. I also love watching the dynamic qualities of a garden. I’m an architect by trade and frankly architects don’t like things to change.
If something is changing that means an earthquake, etc. With a garden you have seasons, sizes, shade and sun and flowering… leaves falling. Its always different and I love that.
EYE: Have you always been charitable?
VIRGINIA: I like to think that I’ve always been a charitable person. What shifted for me was after Katrina. I did go twice to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and volunteered doing assessments on buildings that were damaged and anyone whose ever done something like that knows that it shifts you in such a fundamental way that you see the world differently and ever since then its always been a part of my consciousness.
EYE: Was that the ultimate event that triggered your desire to donate food?
VIRGINIA: Going to the aftermath of Katrina and participating in that definitely changed my life. And it was that point where I realized there is an added layer that you could you participate in as a human being. And then lately, when I’ve seen what’s been going on in the economy, I felt like our nation was in the fetal position with a cell phone in one hand and a Big Mac in the other and everyone felt helpless.
I didn’t buy into that. We’re not any different. We’re the same people I saw in Mississippi that were helpful and generous and looking to make things better.
“I think that as communities and as Americans we have so much; there is no scarcity in this country, there’s just a scarcity of good ideas.”
EYE: Why is it important for you to be charitable now?
VIRGINIA: I think this is a time when people are very challenged. We’re living through a period in the US where people feel powerless and they’re hurting. I don’t think we should be depending on Wall Street, or the banks or Congress. It helps to share with each other. The Jones Coffee Company gives me their coffee grounds all year long and I use them in the compost to grow the plants. I thank them with baskets of veggies.
I think that as communities and as Americans we have so much; there is no scarcity in this country, there’s just a scarcity of good ideas.
EYE: Why was Friends In Deed the right organization to start donating your produce?
VIRGINIA: They were thrilled with getting fresh organic fruits and veggies because most of what’s donated to a food bank is what’s left, not the first.
So my idea was give the food bank the best, not what you’re discarding. I’m picking it at its freshest. No large chain could ever match that.
There are other people that I give baskets to like senior citizens on a budget, maybe they’re cutting corners or people with small children on a budget. It’s a treat for them as well to eat a little better.
EYE: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your community?
VIRGINIA: I have so many friends since I’ve been delivering these baskets!! Haha! I’m sort of wondering if people want to become my friend so they can get a basket too! But in general, it’s surprise and delight.
EYE: You are just doing this out of the kindness of your heart?
VIRGINIA: I couldn’t imagine taking money for what I do. I feel that in so many ways I’ve been fortunate. I am a far cry from being a wealthy person, but I feel wealthy in the way I’ve been able to live my life.
EYE: Are you a role model?
VIRGINIA: I think everyone is a role model whether you want to be or not. People observe what you do and what you say and how you walk through the world.
I would like to leave people a little better than I found them and I’d like to leave the world better than I found it. If I could do that I would feel like I had a successful life.
“What I’ve learned from doing this is how many people say I want to do something too.”
EYE: How can we all be more like you?
VIRGINIA: The big secret is everyone is just like me. There isn’t anything special about me. Everybody has that part of them I think that wants to do something. What I’ve learned from doing this is how many people say I want to do something too.
It’s really just a matter of acting on your impulses. I just encourage them to do whatever they are thinking of doing. Don’t think about the result. Just do it. Just act.
EYE: So what are the three keys to a successful garden?
VIRGINIA: First of all you have to grow plants in a sunny location. #2: you have to provide them with good soil and water and #3: you have to be an optimist and be prepared to put a little effort into it.
In the end, not everything will work but it doesn’t really matter because something will work and give you pleasure.
EYE: And the most important question I save for last. If you were any kind of vegetable what kind would you be?
VIRGINIA: I would be one that everyone would love to eat. A tomato! An heirloom tomato at its peak is something quite wonderful. Ha!
EYE: Thanks Virginia! I’m going to go make a salad now…