December 5, 2017 – When Tanja Roos departs MEarth in February 2018, she’ll be the last of the founding generation to leave.
Roos came to the 10-acre Hilton Bialek Habitat property in 2003 as an intern to work with Craig Hohenberger, who had received approval to use an abandoned Christmas tree farm adjacent to Carmel Middle School for the Habitat, and Ellen Fondiler, who was making preparations for the organic garden. Roos quickly became integral to the Habitat and co-founded MEarth (pronounced Me-earth), a separate not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring kids to appreciate the natural world through experience-based learning at the Habitat. The organization’s values mirror Roos’ passions: sustainability, education, stewardship, community, integrity, and leadership.
“I have an unrelenting need to do good in the world,” Roos says. And for the past nearly fifteen years, she has focused that drive on the Habitat, MEarth, and the local community in which she has deep roots. “I spent time at that Christmas tree farm when I was a kid,” she remembers.
She has devoted herself to helping build the infrastructure for MEarth and the Habitat, crafting a seed-to-table culinary program from the ground up that includes a 1-acre organic garden, a native bee garden, an heirloom fruit orchard, vermicompost systems, a green house, an outdoor kitchen and, as of March 2012, a LEED-certified multi-use classroom. While she admits that a LEED-certified green building probably wasn’t in Hohenberger’s original vision, she says he “had a very zen way of leading that provided space for other people’s passions.” And sustainable development is one of hers, “I want to show people that buildings can be both ecologically sound and beautiful.”
As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working on a degree in Sustainable Development, she focused on community connections with the natural environment; she co-founded the California Student Sustainability Coalition that successfully rallied the UC Regents to adopt a University of California-wide Sustainability Policy in 2002. Because the policy passed before UC Merced was constructed, that entire campus was constructed with those guidelines in place. Roos continued to expand her expertise by completing a Masters degree in Nonprofit Administration from the University of San Francisco’s School of Management in 2013.
Throughout the years, Roos has amassed many accolades from the Monterey County Weekly as a “mover and shaker” in their 25 people to watch for the next 25 years list, from the Democratic Women of Monterey County as a ‘visionary leader,’ and from former Congressman Sam Farr and State Senator Bill Monning for her exemplary work in the community. Just last month she was inducted into Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI) culinary society.
But, if you ask about her lasting impact on MEarth, she thinks that her greatest accomplishment isn’t physical or material. She talks about a rippling legacy. By expanding students’ perspectives, MEarth aims to promote behavioral changes that impact the local community, the country, and the globe; she urges students, “We can make a difference – through the food that we eat, through the native plants that we cultivate, through the cleaning supplies that we choose.” Her legacy lies in the alumni. “It’s about running into students who went through the program who tell me, ‘You changed my life.’”
One of the programs she developed–EcoCamp–is a week-long program during the summer when campers explore the diversity of wildlife and native plants on the land, while planting and harvesting fruits and veggies in the organic garden. Campers prepare MEarth’s bounty into snacks, partake in hands-on activities, and learn simple eco-practices to live a more sustainable life—and help their families shrink their carbon footprint, too.
Jet Garneau, a 5th grader at Tularcitos Elementary School, has participated in EcoCamp and chose Roos when he needed to select a community hero for his Advanced Learner Program. “Tanja believes that kids are the future,” Garneau writes.” She became the director because of her love of plants and children. This inspired her to make the world a better place.”
MEarth has programs for children on how to cook, harvest, grow, and care for nature. Garneau liked the camp so much that he signed up for a second year. Each week of EcoCamp culminates in a garden-to-table lunch for the families in the outdoor kitchen. Garneau says that he helped make the pasta and the appetizer, “We made bread with homemade chive butter and topped it with a sliver of radish that we picked from the garden.”
As to what the future holds, Roos characterizes her first steps as a 3-month walkabout. She was raised traveling to far-flung places around the globe; she’s been to 35 countries and counting. Driven to exploration and adventures with an international perspective, she lists Bali, New Zealand, Central America, and Europe as possible destinations. First, though, she’s heading to Kauai where she plans to relax on a beach with a tropical drink in hand. “A little umbrella in the drink is fine, but plastic straws are verboten.”
“Life is precious,” she says. And her life’s journey is to strike a balance between doing meaningful work locally–wherever local happens to be–and staying connected to the greater movement towards a more sustainable future for the entire planet.
Edible Monterey Bay has reported on MEarth repeatedly, beginning with our very first issues, and shares the sustainable values of Roos and the entire project. MEarth has won EMB’s Local Heroes award in the nonprofit category and EMB has been a sponsor of MEarth events. Shelby Lambert, an EMB sales manager, sits on the Board of Directors of MEarth and administrative assistant Katie Reeves was in charge of EMB social media for many years. All of us wish Tanja a wonderful journey and can’t wait to see what she does next.
We also wish MEarth success in its search for an outstanding new executive director. Read about the search and the job requirements on the website: www.mearthcarmel.org/executive-director-search