By Gerry Bill
Nancy Waidtlow is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves for her founding of the amazing project we call the Dakota EcoGarden (DEG). Waidtlow recently received the Mr. Rogers “Neighborhood Trolley Award.” The annual award is given out by Valley PBS, the station that used to carry the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program.
On March 20, the birthday of Fred Rogers (1928–2003), Valley PBS televised this year’s award winners, including Waidtlow talking about how and why she founded the EcoGarden. The segment included video footage of the EcoGarden itself, along with an interview with one of the current residents, Kassy Davis, who talks about her struggle to regain custody of her children.
“Before we found the DEG, nowhere else would help us,” Davis says in the video.
The Valley PBS video also has an interview with Jeff Hallock, Waidtlow’s next-door neighbor and the person who nominated her for the award. He talks about seeing homeless on the streets of Fresno and not knowing what to do except maybe write a check to the Food Bank.
“Nancy looks at that, thinks it over, goes and buys a house, gathers a bunch of like-minded people to form a board of directors, forms a nonprofit corporation, builds shelters, brings in homeless people and has been running the thing for years now,” says Hallock. “I can’t imagine doing that. I am completely in awe.”
The Dakota EcoGarden has been in operation for nearly eight years and in that time has taken in 83 unhoused people, 73 of whom have since moved on (most of them successfully). When Waidtlow started the project, she was housing people in tents in the backyard, but three of the tents have now been replaced by award-winning Arthur Dyson–designed structures, and he has additional structures on the drawing board that will be coming soon.
The tents themselves, which started out as camping tents pitched on the ground, are now bedroom-sized, straight-walled tents suspended by canopies with metal roofs, upon platforms, containing beds and closets, and with 12-volt solar-powered electricity to run lights and fans.
Waidtlow’s project has never received any grants or government money of any kind. It is funded completely by donations from individuals and from the Fresno faith community. Much of the work on the site, besides that which is done by the residents themselves, has been done by community volunteers, including many student volunteers from Fresno State and Fresno City College (some of whom are shown in the video assisting with construction projects).
Waidtlow is currently in the process of selling the property to the nonprofit parent of the EcoGarden, the Eco Village Project of Fresno, which will help keep the project going for many years into the future.
Valley PBS has put the Nominate Your Neighbor program on its website for viewing. It is also available on YouTube.
Gerry Bill is an emeritus professor of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College. He is on the boards of numerous nonprofits in Fresno, including the Eco Village Project of Fresno/Dakota EcoGarden, which provides temporary housing for Fresno’s unhoused population using an early intervention model. He is also Nancy Waidtlow’s partner. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.