Pursuing Your Mission While Maintaining Community in a Time of COVID: The Heathcote Community
By Rob Wheeler*
Over the past few years the Heathcote Community, located in a small wooded valley 30 miles north of Baltimore, has faced and gone through many challenges; finally we are we believe in a period of revitalization and rebirth.
I lived here happily from 2012 – 2014 and then left around the same time as many others to give my former relationship “one last chance”; but I have now returned home to Heathcote just a few months ago. Others left for various other reasons such as the kids had grown up and left and it was time to move on or another family was wanting to have kids and a place of their own. In any case we went from a community that averaged around 20 members for quite a few years to there now being only 8 of us with 5 of these being adults – which has been really hard to manage both financially and otherwise. There are just too many things to do to maintain a thriving, ever evolving community with so few of us.
Fortunately one thing that we do have going for us is that we have quite a few associate members and former residents who still care a lot about the community and that help us in various ways. At Heathcote we have two large high tunnel greenhouses and about an acre of gardens. Our gardener/farmer, Matt, has a great deal of experience working at and managing various organic farms. Last year we launched a very successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programme that was very well received and supported by both former Heathcote residents as well as many others. This year we are planning for and hope to double our number of client families who purchase shares.
For many years Heathcote has wanted to establish an “Accessible Garden”, which will be located in the heart of our community between the Mill community building and stream, our lawn and play area, the barn and wood shop, and our carriage house tool, recycling, and farm supply shed. Our Farm Intern Megan has wonderfully and graciously agreed to and has been developing a site plan for the garden with input from our community members.
Our recent good news is that we now have 5 potential new members going through our application process with two scheduled to come for their initial 21 day visit any day now. They are also quite interested in and are looking forward to living in community and most have some sort of a gardening, farming or growing background, which bodes very well for our future. In addition they are all in the 30 – 40 year old age range which is potentially very good both for Heathcote’s revitalization efforts and for our longevity.
This is particularly important for us, not only because the heart of our community is an old grain mill that was built in 1847; but also because Heathcote was one of the first School of Living communities bought and created by SoL founders back at the time of the Back to the Land movement of hippy yore and lore, including former SoL Board Member and current SOL Land Committee member Herb Goldstein. In short Heathcote was originally a “hippy commune”. And fortunately we still have much of that same vibe here today, while still striving to operate as a “professional” mainstream community that welcomes the larger community to come and visit, experience, share and learn from us.
This has been a somewhat difficult and challenging time for us in recent years, not only due to Covid and our dwindling or should I say dwindled membership base; but also because following a neighbor’s complaint we had to put many of our educational offerings on hold due to County Building Code restrictions. However we applied for a special exception to use the Mill building as a school and it was approved pending getting a change of occupancy permit. We have recently hired JacobsWyper Architects (JWA), an architectural firm from Philadelphia, that is now completing a Building Assessment for our community center and Heathcote Mill building that will soon be submitted to the county. We are fortunate that because of the historical nature of our community building many of the overly-rigorous restrictions will not have to be met.
We recently got a much welcomed Christmas present, when our architect sent us the initial draft report and let us know that there were only a limited number of things that we will likely have to do in the first phase to be approved for the change of occupancy permit, which will thus enable us to be able to hold classes and workshops once again on the first floor of our conference center in the old Mill. When that is then coupled with the Accessible Garden and we are again able to welcome visitors from the greater community, with the help of all of our new, existing, former, and associate members we believe that we will really be on track for fulfilling our stated mission of being a demonstration farm and regenerative permaculture education center.
In the second phase of the building renovation we are hoping to install a new composting toilet and accessible bathroom and are now looking into the various options to determine what might work best for us. At Heathcote we also have as a part of our mission to become an inclusive socially just community, which we see as being important both for the well-being of the community but also as a regenerative demonstration living and learning center and permaculture education and farm site.
The construction and development of the “accessible garden” and accessible composting toilet are particularly important for us and for our mission both because some of our existing and new members face and are having to deal with various disabilities and/or are a part of the larger community that has been either disadvantaged, excluded or stigmatized.
In addition pretty much everyone in our community is interested in and is pursuing healthy lifestyle choices and practices. We hold weekly meditation and yoga sessions, along with our regular community and committee meetings. Our new members are into juicing, micro-farming, growing healing herbs, and other healing modalities. I am proud to say that I am now, once again, a part of both Heathcote’s legacy, rebirth, and revitalization.
* Rob Wheeler is also a former school teacher, serves on the Core Team of the Pan African Ecovillage Development Programme and the GEN Elder’s Council, is a Findhorn Fellow, and is on the Advisory Council for the Ecosystem Restoration Camps, the Board of the EarthRights Institute, and is a North American Representative on the Facilitating Group for Action for Sustainable Development. Rob is the Founder and CEO of Sustainably Wise, a web portal to assist all interested people in helping to create a fully sustainable world. He put together the content for a special web section featuring best practices and success stories that demonstrate how ecovillage communities are helping to address and overcome our shared climate emergency.
Note: This article was published on the School of Living Blog on Feb. 25, 2021.
From the Past:
By Karen Stupski, 2015
By Ina Hicks, 1967