It’s a Friday, an hour or so after daybreak, and HPU alum and California native Victoria Hensley is busy picking the green beans growing in bushes around her knees.
With her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, she wears a camouflage ball cap and the blue rubber boots she keeps in her car along with her hoe, her bug spray and the eight marbles she’s discovered by digging in the dirt.
And she does dig in the dirt.
She has helped turn a dozen vacant lots in High Point’s low-income neighborhoods into three tiny vegetable farms, one hops farm and a spot for two greenhouses where vegetables can grow year-round.
In doing so, Hensley helps High Pointers connect, eat healthier, make a little extra money and stoke their community pride in a section of the city where hope, progress and grocery stores seem far away.
Hensley is a walking example of HPU’s longstanding commitment to helping High Point thrive, and she has seen that town-gown connection blossom firsthand.
Because of her work, Hensley was honored last month as one of 10 alums under 30 making a difference.
She’s started conversations over tables as she sold locally grown produce at one of the city’s four locations and talked about urban farms nearby.
She’s hovered over rows of green, sweating beside neighbors who came to help her plant and pick vegetables.
She’s worked with neighbors clearing brush and debris from the vacant lots. In one lot, neighbors filled 100 garbage bags. Afterward, neighbors came up to Hensley and said, “Nothing has been done there in 20 years. Thank you.”
High Pointers noticed. And they’ve gotten involved. Local resident, Rory Chavis, will soon start growing tomatoes and other vegetables in one of the greenhouses – a greenhouse he helped the non-profit, High Point Community Against Violence, build.
Meanwhile, kids have jumped in to help Hensley. They’ve even hugged her knees.
“Miss Victoria,” one kid told her this past summer. “I need to be here. This helps me stay out of trouble.”
Hensley is a farmer and a grass-roots activist. She works to feed the hungry and empower the forgotten in a city she didn’t know existed until six years ago.
Who knew? She didn’t.
“You Have A God-Given Ability”
Hensley is the urban farm facilitator for From The Ground Up, an initiative that began last September by Dr. Patrick Harman and his family’s non-profit, the Hayden-Harman Foundation.
Harman is a High Pointer. His great grandfather started North State Telephone more than a century ago. Harman grew up in High Point, loves High Point, and likes nothing better than to tap into the talent of High Point’s low-income neighborhoods and watching folks shine.
Hensley is a first-generation American, raised in a suburb outside of San Francisco, the youngest of three daughters born to parents who see Africa as their first home. Of her three sisters, Hensley is considered the shy one.
She never thought of herself as a leader. But Josh Hensley did. Josh is her husband. The two began dating in college. At HPU, Josh told her all the time she had leadership in her.
“You have a God-given ability,” he’d say. “You see where people need to fit to get something done.”
Victoria didn’t realize it until her last semester at HPU. She was taking a class with Dr. Jenn Brandt, and Brandt noticed that Victoria thought more like an advocate than a student.
When Brandt heard Victoria was still exploring her options after graduation, she told her to see Dr. Joe Blosser, the Robert G. Culp Director of HPU’s Service Learning Program, about a job.
Blosser was recruiting new alums for HPU’s AmeriCorps VISTA program. VISTA is short for Volunteers In Service To America, and after talking to Victoria, Blosser thought she could be a good fit.
He assigned her to work with the Hayden-Harman Foundation to see if she could coax people to plant a community garden. Blosser really didn’t know Victoria could pull it off. But he knew how meaningful the project could be.
“One of the goals of the Greater High Point Food Alliance is to use the topic of food to bring the whole community together,” Blosser says. “And through that, we want to show that growing food and growing hope aren’t restricted to one part of town.”
The Bountiful Harvest Of An HPU Education
Hensley began her VISTA work in one of the most food insecure spots in the country.
Food insecurity means people don’t have enough money to buy the food they need to feed themselves or their families. And in High Point, one out of every four children go hungry.
Hensley got to know those statistics. And for her, those statistics had faces and names. So, Hensley got busy.
She helped start HPU’s Food Recovery Network chapter, which donated more than 20,000 pounds of food in its first year to High Point’s homeless shelter, Open Door Ministries.
She worked as the coordinator for HPU’s Bonner Leaders program and helped students get involved with local community service projects.
She worked with Harman and the Greater High Point Food Alliance and started three community gardens in the city’s three low-income neighborhoods.
And to think, she had never planted a thing until after she graduated – and that was at Josh Hensley’s family garden in western North Carolina.
Victoria taught herself the ins and outs of urban farming by reading and bookmarking Curtis Stone’s book, “The Urban Farmer.” Meanwhile, she talked to residents about what they knew.
As she worked, often in her camouflage ball cap and jeans, she earned the trust and respect of residents who looked much different than her.
Hensley graduated two years ago with a business degree with a minor in anthropology and marketing. As a VISTA, she heard more than once, “Where did you get your agricultural degree?”
Hensley did harvest much from her HPU education. It wasn’t about what seeds to plant.
“I learned that you have to work your way into the community to build trust, and you do that not by standing in front of them and telling them your vision,” Hensley says. “But you have to stand beside them. It’s not your vision. It’s their vision.
“It’s that growth mindset thing. You can’t believe you can’t do it. You have to believe you can do it. You have to take initiative and go places where you feel uncomfortable.”
After her year as a VISTA, Patrick Harman had an idea. He had gotten interested in finding ways to revitalize his hometown, and last fall, he created a position for Hensley. He wanted her to turn vacant lots into farmland.
He knew why.
“She has pixie dust in her back pocket,” says Harman, an HPU grad and the director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation. “She has a way of making things happen, and even at 24, I knew she could do this.”
High Point Is Home
It’s a Saturday, vegetable selling day for Hensley.
She’s standing underneath a tent at the High Point Farmer’s Market beside the High Point Library. She’s behind two tables of red tomatoes, green tomatoes, okra, turnip and the green beans, all vegetables she had picked the day before.
Twenty feet away is market manager Lee Gann. For both, it’s another day of selling. And for Hensley, it’s another day of being a farm evangelist in the city of High Point.
Whenever customers ask, she tells them the same thing.
“These were all picked yesterday and grown in vacant lots turned into gardens,” she says. “And they’re only two miles away.”
Like her work in the garden, life has been busy for Hensley. In September, she got married in Waynesville, North Carolina, at an outdoor wedding where the Great Smoky Mountains loomed large just beyond the trees.
Today, Hensley is back in High Point and hanging on her office wall is a plaque honoring the work of From The Ground Up. Two weeks ago, the Greater High Point Food Alliance gave the non-profit its Rooted In The Community award.
Hensley is proud of that because she does feel rooted. She sees High Point as her new home.
She’s reminded of that every time she leaves the greenhouses off Pershing Street, spots the neighbor named Jack sitting on his front porch, hollering “Hey, neighbor!” and throwing up his hand in a wave.
“I don’t know how I earned that trust, but I did,” she says. “That’s a good feeling. I’m a Californian. But this is becoming my home.”