Alumna honored as CNN Hero

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September 8, 2011

11:21 PM

Recessions always leave their mark, and for Holly Hirshberg ’98, the 2008 recession left a scar on her family. However, it also gave her the chance to explore new paths. She used her green thumb to cultivate her own garden and eventually her own program, the Dinner Garden, which garnered her a nomination as a CNN Hero in July 2011.

In 2008, Hirshberg’s husband, Sean, lost his job in the financial market, creating concern about how they would provide for their two children with special needs.

Hirshberg had always cultivated a small garden, but with the recession causing concern she began growing a much larger garden at her home in San Antonio, Texas.

“I just thought that if I grew my own food, then I wouldn’t have to worry,” Hirshberg said.

After starting her own garden, Hirshberg began tossing around the idea of an organization that would encourage other people to garden.

She approached multiple non-profit organizatios hoping that the idea would take hold, but the economy was headed south, and non-profits’ funds were drying up.

“People need help now, and the only way they’re going to get help is if I start now,” Hirshberg said. “We started applying as a separate non-profit, and it grew quickly from there.”

In 2008, Hirshberg officially began the Dinner Garden, a program that would send seeds and information on gardening free of charge to families who were struggling financially. Hirshberg, her family and volunteers spent long evenings packing the envelopes with seeds and labeling them.

“Holly’s program is a very laborious and cost-intensive program,” said Gary Oppenheimer, founder of ampleharvest.org, who nominated Hirshberg as a CNN Hero. “It consumes your nights and weekends. At the same time, it costs money.”

Despite the exhaustive work, Hirshberg continued to expand her non-profit and has now provided over 65 thousand families with seeds to start their own gardens.

“Many people believe that gardening is expensive and only a hobby, but people were growing their own food before there were gardening stores,” Hirshberg said. “You can grow gardens in containers and boxes, basically anywhere.”

For Hirshberg, the garden helped lift her family’s spirits during the recession. Her 19-year-old son Sam and 18-year-old daughter Jacqui, along with her husband, helped tend the garden. Hirshberg hopes that gardening will have the same effect on others as it did on her family.

“The people who we donate seeds to want to make their lives better,” Hirshberg said. “They don’t just want the handout, and they really love the idea of being able to take an active role. It really has lifted people’s spirits.”

Hirshberg teamed up with Oppenheimer, whose organization helps connect farmers and gardeners with local food pantries so that any excess food can be donated rather than discarded.

“We both recognize that, in effect, what she starts, I can finish,” Oppenheimer said. “The end result is that people who are getting less-than-ideal food can get an adequate amount and even healthy food from food pantries. When you grow more food than you can use, preserve or give to friends, you can donate it to food pantries.”

Through the partnership, Hirshberg and Oppenheimer hope to encourage the cycle of giving.

“We effectively are helping people help others,” Oppenheimer said. “These are the people who asked for help today and will be part of the solution tomorrow.”

The partnership, however, was one of the few between two CNN Heroes that helped support two different organizations.

“It’s something that I think doesn’t happen enough,” Oppenheimer said. “There’s really not much of an effort out there to get non-profits collaborating together. If you were to bring them together, you would have a much more potent combination.”

After closely working with Hirshberg, Oppenheimer decided to nominate her as a CNN Hero. Oppenheimer was named a CNN Hero the previous year, and he felt that the effects of such a nomination would help Hirshberg expand the Dinner Garden.

“Regardless of who you are, the nomination adds an air of credibility to what you’re doing,” Oppenheimer said. “You’ve been approved by a global news organization. For my project, they even called up people at the Department of Agriculture to check it out.”

CNN requires an extensive background check of the individual before officially honoring him or her as a CNN Hero, in order to make sure that both the individual and the project are reliable. In July 2011, Hirshberg was honored as a CNN Hero.

“It really helped us with recognition, so now we can get more funding and more people who believe in our mission,” Hirshberg said. “Dinner Garden belonged to the American people from the start. So more people in America can get involved in our mission, and that’s what has been wonderful about the nomination.”

Hirshberg has turned her passion into a career, encouraging others through various speaking engagements to get involved in sustainable gardening through the Dinner Garden. 


Hirshberg faced struggles as a student at the College of William and Mary helped her to develop the project. Hirshberg had a learning disability that made it challenging for her to learn in the same manner as other students at the College.

“It always plagued me, but it was that learning disability that made me find this project,” Hirshberg said. “I always had to say to myself, ‘Don’t be discouraged if this is hard for you, your brain was designed to do what it needs to do.’ My brain just needed something different. I don’t think linearly and because of that, I saw a solution that no one else has seen. If it was easier for me, I wouldn’t have worked so hard.”

Working hard at the College has now translated to working hard for the Dinner Garden in San Antonio. With the CNN Hero nomination to back her up, Hirshberg hopes to continue to expand the program and to encourage more families to create their own garden.

“You have to do something every day to further your mission,” Hirshberg said. “This project is important to me. If I want to do this, I can, but I have to work.”

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