The Westgarden has been cultivated by a long lineage of caring stewards since the 1970s. Its newest steward, Brit Schneider, joined the Whidbey Institute staff this month, and brought with her a passion for plants and people as well as a great breadth of experience in medicinal herbs, vegetable farming, volunteer mentorship, and garden education.
Brit grew up in this area, but spent time abroad and in Northern California as a young adult. Most recently, she moved from Sacramento, California, where she engaged in farming education and outreach at Soil Born Farms and worked in urban schools teaching garden education.
Brit described working with students in gardens, pollinator habitats, outdoor classrooms, and orchards at each of four sites—exciting educational contexts for students who, for the most part, had very limited access to fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and green spaces. “One student’s mapping project revealed that within a one mile radius of school, there were two places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and 21 liquor stores,” she explained. In these verdant spaces, Brit worked with students on topics ranging from growing food, eating, and cooking to sampling soil, assessing watersheds, and composting with worms.
Brit said a highlight of this work was the humor and fun that the kids added to her life. In wrapping up her affairs in California, goodbyes with her students were some of the hardest and most beautiful. “It’s so great to see a garden through children’s eyes,” she said. “They made me laugh every day.” Brit also enjoyed getting to know her students’ families, many of whom spoke Spanish at home. For Brit, it was an opportunity to deepen into another interest—foreign languages, and the human connectivity that multi-lingual fluency helps enable.
“I went to school for something completely different than farming,” she said, explaining that she majored in German and Communications, then joined the Peace Corps. “I still love foreign languages, and loved the opportunity to speak Spanish with parents of ESL kiddos. I was excited by the opportunities for connection that conversation provided.” Since her Peace Corps service in Northern Peru, where she worked as a Community Health Educator, Brit has continued to seek opportunities to engage with different cultures, people, and perspectives.
“My love of medicinal herbs began in Peru,” Brit said. “When I would feel homesick or sad, or if I had a stomachache, my host mom would go outside, gather plants, and make tea for me. I was fascinated . . . that was not the way I had been raised to understand medicine.” After her time in Peru, Brit had the opportunity to work with a skilled herbalist in Sacramento, and said she still has a lot of passion, joy, and hunger for more learning on the subject. “We have some special herbs in the Westgarden and cannot wait to expand on that and continue my learning,” she said.
“With this job, I can do a lot of the things I love best—work with kids, engage volunteers, interact with the community, grow food, support social justice efforts—and I can do so with greater depth, rooted in one piece of ground where I can grow a strong sense of belonging in community.”
Brit is excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest, where she still has family, and settling in on Whidbey Island. She appreciates the beauty of our campus and region, and said the ferns, forests, and rain feel good down to her bones. “I loved the job I left, but it was sometimes hard to spread my energy across four different schools plus a nonprofit educational farm. With this job, I can do a lot of the things I love best—work with kids, engage volunteers, interact with the community, grow food, support social justice efforts—and I can do so with greater depth, rooted in one piece of ground where I can grow a strong sense of belonging in community.” Brit is currently getting to know the Westgarden alongside Abigail, and beginning research into how the climate on Whidbey Island will change her approach to growing plants. “Being with the land—watching, learning, and getting to know the way plants grow in this specific place—will allow me to optimize the incredible systems that have been put in place by people working this land before me,” she said.
Asked about how it feels to join the team at this time, when we’re building toward an expansion of our facilities and offerings, Brit said she felt lucky and excited. “With so much changing and opening up, and with new opportunities being created, I can bring my passion projects and create more ways for community members to interact with the garden.”
Brit shared her passion for other things, outside people, plants, and nature, during our conversation—they’re wide ranging, from pottery to peanut butter toast—but at the heart of them all lies Brit’s joyful appreciation for beauty, bounty, and—above all—connection. Even her rescue rabbit, Bun, provides opportunities to bridge divides. “He has such spunk,” she said. “I often put him in a basket and take him places with me. It’s unique to see a rabbit out in public, and it’s brought really incredible conversations with people I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve learned so much, heard so many stories about the powerful love people feel for their own animals.”
Brit’s closing thoughts went to what’s next for her in the Westgarden, from the practical tasks of waking the garden to spring to the more intangible matter of getting to know the garden’s quirks and personality. “I’m enjoying spending time here, thinking about this sweet space and how much love’s already been invested in this garden,” she said. “I know how many incredible hands it’s passed through, and I have a sense of honor to be able to take it on.”