Lacey Oliver: Planting seeds of change

Lacey, community outreach volunteer

by Jack Russell, Lam Ho, and Travis White

Contributing Writers

Behind a chain link fence, a patch of ten scare-crows stand guard over the Swiss Memorial Elementary beets. Two kids root around in a composting vase, arguing whether or not you can “make worms forever” by chopping them in half repeatedly. It’s a busy afternoon for the rapidly expanding “Seeds of Change After-school Garden Club”. Nurse Morgan, in charge of facilitating and building a curriculum for the students in the Seeds of Change Garden Club, points at the orchard, then directs her attention to the garden. “We’re using rain barrels to water,” Nurse Morgan says. “Here are some red peppers. These are some beets, and there are some marigolds. Spinach is coming along.” A skinny boy in a Halo shirt shows up late and asks if he can join the club, but Nurse Morgan tells him she’s sorry but they’re full, and he should try again next semester. He goes back inside. In the garden, outlines of checkerboards and tic-tac-toe boards are being traced on tables. Across from three kids in camo clothing, sits Lacey Oliver (C’14), a VISTA worker, sporting a scarf and sweater, short hair brushed to one side, gesturing with her free hand (the other holds two paint-brushes like chopsticks). One of the community volunteers asks her, “Could you open this can of paint? Please?” and Lacey offers her keys.

Lacey communicates with her entire body; expressive eyes, tone, movements, legs (usually crossed, standing or sit-ting), but mostly her hands. It’s almost a kind of sign language the way she puts her palms out when making suggestions, crossing her wrists at her waist level when making requests, etc. A kid runs back to the table with Oliver’s keys and she accepts them, smiling. Oliver graduated from the University of the South with a degree in English. She pursued a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies, a topic in which she found one of her many pasions: service work. During her time in Sewanee, she volunteered with Alpha Eta Theta (APO), a community service fraternity.

While her experience with APO contributed to her passion for service, her true connection with VISTA and the area she works with now started at a young age: Born in Pelham, Tennessee, Oliver was surrounded by poverty. According to, in 2009, 32.6% of Pelham residents were earning incomes that fell below the poverty thresh-old. She lived in Pelham until her parents filed for divorce, after which she lived with her mother. “My dad became my friend and mentor even as my mom took care of more tangible needs,” Oliver says. She then resided in and went to high school in Winchester. With 36.3% of it’s population living below the poverty line, Oliver felt compelled by the stories of impoverished families in Grundy County and the surrounding areas. Still, Oliver admits, she is still constantly struck by the poverty of the South Cumberland Plateau. Unlike many of the people she is working with as a VISTA, she has always known where her next meal was coming from. “If my car broke down, I know that my family would be able to help me out, or in any kind of trouble they could help me out in some way; many people in Grundy County don’t have that same sense of a security blanket.”

Grundy County was ranked by as 94/95 according to median household income in Tennessee counties, 95 being the lowest average income, a statistic that has motivated the University-affiliated VISTA volunteers to develop their individual programs These programs seek to empower Middle Tennesseeans of all age groups and to help them rise out of their impoverished conditions and lead better, healthier lifestyles. Inspired to motivate change and to build programs that provide opportunities for volunteers to interact with community members, students, and the senior citizens, she became a VISTA, a role she fulfills as a teacher, partner, men-tor, friend, and leader.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Caleb, one of the students drawing a tic-tac-toe board at Garden Club said. “I like Lacey. She helped teach us that you don’t have to eat bad food all the time — that you can eat good food, too.” He took a pen to the small blue picnic table and drew a straight line. “They’re trying new things. That’s one thing we’re pushing — making sure we’re trying new vegetables. And if it’s some-thing we haven’t had before, we just try it! If we don’t like it, the worst that happens is that we don’t like it — you can just throw it away,” Oliver said later, standing in the classroom where the Seeds of Change group meets once a week to learn about gardening and healthy food options. “Another thing we came up with is building new friendships. The club is made up of kids from fourth to eighth grade — some are younger, some are older — so some of these kids are the ‘cool athletes’ and some aren’t as involved, so Garden Club is their thing. It’s cool to bring those together and encourage them not to stay in their little cliques. One thing we do is assign groups when we split into work groups. We’ve had some visitors, some lizards and frogs and bunnies — those have been exciting.”

Not only does Oliver help with Garden Club, but she contributes to other schools’ programs, including an Activate Grundy program that encourages with that person. I definitely do understand and young people to lead active lifestyles. When the VISTA pro-gram started earlier this year, the living situations of the ten volunteers (there are eight now) was one of the last things to get figured out. Two VISTAs were able to find a place in Chattanooga, two rented a house in Sewanee, and the remaining four, Oliver included, were still effectively homeless. Sewanee’s rent was bloated because parents/alums with lots of disposable income are the most common short-term customers, and everywhere else was too far away, leaving the volunteers with few good options. The yearly VISTA salary is roughly $11,676, which is less than the in-come from a 40-hour work week at minimum wage ($7.25), and the volunteers are not permitted to work additional jobs. This is slightly above the 2013 poverty threshold for one person under 65 years old with no co-dependants, but it still means VISTAs are financially limited. The program gives them the option to go on government food stamps (Oliver opted out).

“Empathy is something VISTA stresses, and I con-sider myself empathetic to poverty through seeing it in a variety of internships and service I’ve done. Also, studying it in terms of what can be done is important. But I don’t see myself in poverty right now… I’m never gonna experience that. I can’t… I think being aware of that is important. It’s foolish to kid yourself and say you’re experiencing what they’re experiencing be-cause you’re not. And I don’t think you have to be in the same position as someone to empathize I certainly know what it is to stress out about money. But I’ve never been in the experience of not knowing where my next meal is coming from.” Living below the poverty line also means finding a place to live is difficult for the volunteers. Ultimately, the first floor of a conference center was repurposed into a shared living space for the four; two men, two women, two bathrooms and one “kitchen” that was cobbled together specifically for the volunteers. A closet was turned into a pantry, every conceivable kitchen fixture (except an oven/stove) was added to the space. While Oliver no longer lives in a dorm with University students, she is constantly involved on campus. She can be found at Wellness Colloquiums, Women’s Center events, parties, and one of the most important parts of her life: church. Raised in the presence of Tennessee’s widely-held Christian ideals, she still found a way to pave her own way on her spiritual journey. One VISTA volunteer, Oliver says, still has a great heart for service, though he does not affiliate himself with a religious background. “But faith definitely plays a role for me. She laughs, remembering a time when the two exited the gates of Sewanee together. He referred to the Sewanee tradition of tapping the roof of the car to pick up one’s Sewanee angel, a protector and guardian: “What hap-pens if you’re airlifted out of Sewanee. Do you still get your angel?” he asked.

Oliver replied, “Your angel comes with you if you’re not able, especially if you’re not able.”