For more than two decades, Bridget Pettis has found purpose amid the towering meshwork, musty air and creaky wooden floors of a basketball court. But now, the former WNBA guard and coach spends her days tending to lush gardens in sunny Arizona. This is where she is best placed to make an impact on the world, she says.
Although Pettis was raised by a mother and grandmother who were regular gardeners, she didn’t fully embrace her own gardening roots until a few years ago. “All my life, I have known only one thing: to practice and train this sport. During COVID, it really shook me up,” Pettis says. “Having the ground, the ground to stand on, it grounded me and allowed me to see myself beyond this. Now I focus on helping others make that connection.
Pettis is rooting in her community through Project Roots, the Phoenix-based nonprofit she founded with her former partner Dionne Washington in late 2019. The idea came to the couple as they were getting their harvest from a community garden, where it appeared their extra production could help feed food-insecure people in their state, where one in three households experienced food insecurity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Maricopa County, where they live, more than 20 percent of children are food insecure.
“We didn’t know tomatoes had multiple pieces of fruit per plant and we had so many tomatoes,” Washington says. “When we made soup and gave it to homeless people, we were like, ‘How can we make this legit and do this legally?'”
Like many people did when the pandemic hit in 2020, Pettis began to reevaluate her life and what was important to her. So after spending decades in the WNBA, Pettis quit his job as assistant coach of the Chicago Sky women’s basketball team and committed himself full-time to getting Project Roots off the ground. Since retiring from basketball, she has worked to grow the nonprofit, which now has two community gardens in South Phoenix and nearby Maricopa.
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Pettis’ cousin Jessica Diamond joined Project Roots as director of operations shortly after the creation of the association. The trio of women now run the organization with several hundred volunteers and one paid staff member, and they are part of the group of women producers leading the agricultural industry in Arizona.
According to the most recent USDA statistics, Arizona’s agricultural sector is made up of 49% women, the highest percentage in all of the United States and well above the national average of 36%.
Washington, who hopes the nonprofit can serve as an inspiration to others hoping to enter the field, adds that she sees women as a more natural candidate for the job. “We tend to have this nurturing spirit. It’s just in us. Even though we never gave birth to a child, I think it’s an innate thing to do,” she says. “There’s something about putting a seed in the ground, nurturing it, watering it, weeding it out, watching it grow and nurturing it to the community. It is accomplishment.
So far in 2022, the organization has logged a total of 732 volunteer hours, aged 17 to 62. Project Roots product approximately 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. Depending on the month, approximately 50-60% of the premium is paid to Arizona Food Bank Network, local churches and other organizations that serve marginalized groups. The rest is sold at farmers’ markets and through the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which helps subsidize food donated or sold at a reduced cost to those in need.
In addition to distributing its harvest, Project Roots holds free gardening classes for children twice a week and has contracts with three schools in the Roosevelt School District to help them start their own community gardens. Anyone else interested in growing can reserve a spot in one of the two designated Roots Project gardens in exchange for a 0 annual fee or equivalent volunteer time.
Looking back on the evolution of Project Roots and her decision to say goodbye to her professional coaching career, there’s definitely reason to be proud, says Pettis. What strikes her, however, are the parallels between the two worlds.
“We’ve built a great team dedicated to developing and working to become our best. The focus just shifted to communities,” she says. “Seeing so many people who believe in this project, sharing their knowledge, our resources and understanding that there is more than enough when we look to the earth is truly a blessing.”