Original article published in the SD Voyager. Nov 11th, 2019. 

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dawn Mayeda.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Dawn. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
After graduating from college with a degree in Fine Arts, I thought the only way to make a living was to work in advertising. After 20 years of inking straight lines and cutting together pieces of paper with letters on them, and sweating in the darkroom, I began to tire of working so hard on things that would ultimately wind up in the trash.

September 11, 2001 altered the course of my life, along with my family’s. My husband also worked in advertising, and our jobs came to a halt that day, as our livelihoods crashed along with those planes. Looking at a near-term future of living off of our savings, we decided to rent our house, buy a trailer, homeschool our kids, and travel the country for 6 months instead. We were, in fact, concerned that our kids would never get to see the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore before terrorists had a chance to destroy them.

I had always enjoyed writing articles for special-interest magazines, and this paid off as I wrote about working from the road (by locating modems or internet cafes!), teaching our kids to cook in a tiny RV kitchen, and foraging for local food specialties. Upon returning home, this new-found interest led me to work for a restaurant chain with a local headquarters, managing their electronic media campaigns.

But the best turn of fate came late in 2010, when a friend I’d met in business sought me out to run a nonprofit that she was establishing. Sage Garden Project was brought to life as a school garden support organization. Combating childhood obesity and its associated diseases by engaging children with hands-on lessons in gardening and nutritional science – including cooking and eating – became my passion as well as my livelihood.

I’ve always worked hard, but now the results have so much more meaning. I never tire of watching children discover that they actually like foods that are new to them, especially vegetables that they have grown themselves. And I love getting thanked by their parents, for providing this program that opens the world of food to their children. Of course, like any pursuit, there are tedious aspects, but this work is so gratifying, it keeps me motivated.

This next phase of my career is also rewarding, as we are developing the leaders of tomorrow. We currently work to identify, support, and provide training for others working in this field. Our organization is collaborating with other organizations, mapping out best practices, and joining together to bring these wonderful programs to ever more children.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Overall, growing Sage Garden Project has been truly wonderful in every way. I have never been happier, personally and professionally. My colleagues agree, even when we work on the weekends, it feels like we’re doing what we choose to do!

Of course, there were some struggles. We started in a hurry, and learned on the fly. Fortunately, children are very forgiving audiences! After 8 years, I think we can say we have a proven track record.

I was surprised by the competition between some nonprofits, and that caused some missteps. But overall, we’ve been strengthened by collaboration with fellow nonprofits, such as the one we forged this year with The Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation, and we look forward to more!

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Sage Garden Project provides support to Title 1 Elementary school gardens in California, especially those with a high percentage of students predisposed to developing type 2 diabetes. We provide awards of funding that is used to hire staff for during-the-school-day hands-on lessons in gardening and nutrition, including cooking and sampling nutritious food. We also provide curriculum, equipment, money for supplies, staff training, and ongoing guidance. We currently support 62 schools across the state.

Our program is unique in a number of ways:

– Our curriculum incorporates garden maintenance into the student lessons. Though occasional adult workdays are still recommended throughout the year, students are able to provide the majority of care, and therefore develop ownership of their school garden.

– We not only encourage students to taste produce in the garden, we provide cooking lessons and equipment in the form of a mobile cooking cart which is fully stocked with blenders, burners, choppers, and tools. Teaching a person to cook has been identified as one of the most effective methods to encourage healthy diets.

– The fact that our funding can be used for staff is one of the most important differences between Sage Garden Project and other grant monies. Schools often have complained that they can capture funds for a slew of tools, but not a dollar toward a person to hold them. Our newest team member did her thesis on school garden sustainability, and identified paid personnel as the single most critical item for multi-year success.

– Sage Garden Project also differs from many other granting entities in that it encourages awardees to re-apply for multi-year funding. Our intention is to fund for three years, after which our support decreases, as districts and other funders have a chance to witness the proof of concept, and ultimately step up with their financial support.

– We are proud of our schools which have “graduated” from needing our support. After the initial period of support from Sage Garden Project, they have now been funded by their districts.

– I am personally most proud to work for the founder of our Project, who had the vision – from the beginning – to set up our support to schools in this way. She knew, by way of insight, that this was what had been missing, and what was needed, in order for school garden programs to succeed.

What were you like growing up?
I have always been extroverted, never feared speaking in public, and make friends easily. This has certainly helped as I’ve gotten this nonprofit up and running. I’m pretty willing to take risks and face challenges, which served me well in re-inventing my career path – I walked away from a sure-thing job to start something brand-new that I’d never done before. I was always a good student, self-confident, and not afraid to look a little foolish…and that has helped me as I have to research and come up with plans of action for things that may not have ever been done before.

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
I were to ask my boss why she chose me to bring her vision to life, I think she would say it’s my “can-do” attitude. Because I believe in the work we are doing, I have enthusiasm and confidence. These interrelated characteristics provide a great launching pad, and combined with business experience, they are probably responsible for the success I’ve had to date.


Contact Info:

  • Website: sagegardenproject.org
  • Email: info@dspdesignworks.com
  • Instagram: sagegardenproject
  • Facebook: Sage Garden Project