Meet A New Yorker for Parks: Heather Butts

March 10, 2016

Every year NY4P honors the open space stewards from every borough that make the Daffodil Project such as success. This year’s Staten Island honoree is Heather Butts, co-founder of H.E.A.L.T.H. for Youths, an organization dedicated to helping young students in New York equip themselves for life after high school, with an emphasis on disadvantaged youth.

One of the ways they engage young people is through community service events such as planting NY4P Daffodil Project bulbs. Heather has witnessed the positive impact this has on young people’s health and education, and on police-community relations. H.E.A.L.T.H. is a great example of how planting daffodils and watching them grow affects communities in far-reaching ways.

H.E.A.L.T.H. began community service events through a tree stewardship program with Staten Island Council Member Deborah Rose, which including weeding and gardening in tree pits. From there they began programming with police officers and young people, planting daffodils in the open space on precinct grounds in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Most recently they’ve partnered with GreenThumb to create a garden in Skyline Park in Staten Island.

“Most of our young people had no access to gardens, or didn’t know they had access,” Heather explains. “A lot had no exposure to healthy foods coming straight out of the ground.” They partnered with GreenThumb to create a garden in Skyline Playground in Staten Island, with their first harvest in fall 2015. “To see the look on young faces the first time they pull a beet out of the ground, and see food that isn’t processed – it’s overwhelming to them. A lot live in areas that are close to being food deserts. They don’t relate to fresh produce.”

One of Heather’s most poignant experiences is working with young people at the 120th Precinct in Staten Island, where they planted the most daffodils. “Some of our students are court-involved and have had dealings with officers. Sometimes these are the very same officers that they garden with a few days later. We get to see this relationships grow and build in a way that wouldn't’t otherwise. Gardening is very non-threatening; it’s a very peaceful endeavor. Our students will say things like, ‘I haven’t really had any relationship with police officers, and this gives me a chance to do it in a way that’s positive.”

Heather has witnessed the relationship of their students to the local officers change in a dramatic way. “At the 120th Precinct, the kids are now so comfortable that they just walk right in. To see a black kid walk in like it’s his school or his house, and strike up a friendly conversation with the officers, it makes your mouth drop on the floor a bit.”

The precinct garden faces the ferry landing, and is one of the first things people see when they’re leaving the terminal. Before they started working there it was just dirt. Heather has witnessed that every year the daffodils transform the space, and make it more welcoming. “We get comments all the time about how beautiful it is. And since we have the H.E.A.L.T.H. for Youths sign there, people are getting to know us.”

Going forward, Heather is expanding their work to include the intersection of open space with culture, arts, and literacy, an opportunity she sees as “limitless.” They’ve worked with New York Restoration Project in their Riley-Levin Children’s Garden in Inwood, where they hosted a student play and a spoken word event. They’ve put up little free libraries in 5 locations, and are hosting art shows, read-alouds, chamber music, and the like. They’re hosting a recipe swap day, where students will bring in their healthy food recipes and submit them to Michelle Obama’s MyPlate program. Through their programming they hope to make the parks and gardens more accessible and relatable for young people.

When asked if she has any input for other folks interested in engaging youth and students in open space stewardship, she offers three pieces advice: First, have an honest conversation with the young people you’re working with about what they’re interested in, and be open to it. Don't assume that your interests will be the same. Second, be creative, and figure out ways to positively engage with youth. Third, tie what you’re doing to something that’s related to their academic life. It helps keep them engaged in their learning.

In addition to the many hours of work Heather dedicates to HEALTH for Youths, she is also a professor at Columbia University, and a Regulatory Specialist with their Medical Center. She holds four degrees, including a Juris Doctor from St. John’s University, and a Master of Public Health from Columbia. Because of her dedication to open space and young people, we are very proud to honor her at this year’s Daffodil Breakfast.