Homeless vet turned billionaire sponsors gardening project
It's a safe bet that few people in Pocahontas County have heard of West Coast billionaire John Paul DeJoria. But many local residents will learn how to grow better, more productive gardens - and save grocery money - thanks to the generosity of the once-homeless Navy vet.
DeJoria was born in Los Angeles, the son of immigrant parents from Italy and Greece. His parents divorced when he was two-years-old and DeJoria's mother struggled to support the boy and his older brother. At age nine, DeJoria went to work delivering newspapers to help support his family, but, due to poverty, the mother was forced to give up both boys to a foster home.
As a boy, DeJoria spent time in a street gang, but enrolled in the Navy Reserve while still in high school and got his diploma in 1962. After graduation, he joined the Navy, where he served two years and received an honorable discharge.
The veteran struggled through a tough time and took an assortment of jobs: pumping gas, janitor and one field in which he would prove to be a genius - sales. The young man sold encyclopedias, copy machines and even life insurance. During periods of unemployment, he collected cans and bottles to make a few dollars for food and found himself homeless on more than one occasion.
He got a break when Time magazine gave him a job in an entry-level marketing position. By 1971, just nine years after graduating high school, DeJoria was Time's circulation manager for the Los Angeles area. That same year, DeJoria went to work for hair care product company Redken Laboratories, for a salary of $650 a month. He was fired over a disagreement on business strategy - a decision Redken probably came to regret.
In 1980, DeJoria and friend Paul Mitchell borrowed $750 to start their own hair care product company and the partners hit the road to market their new shampoo. After a rocky beginning, Paul Mitchell Systems grew into an empire and DeJoria became a multi-billionaire.
As remarkable as DeJoria's success is his generosity. The former homeless veteran has become one of the world's leading philanthropists - donating millions of dollars, land and time to a variety of charitable causes.
DeJoria's generosity has extended to many corners of the world and now has reached Pocahontas County. Through Berea College in Kentucky, the hair care magnate is funding a program called Grow Appalachia, which is now in its second year.
Grow Appalachia's goals are to increase gardening, cooking, and food preservation skills; increase availability of quality fresh produce; improve nutrition and reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease; develop systems to share surplus produce with elderly and disabled folks at little or no cost and create networks to help local gardeners market their produce.
A three-person team will launch the first Grow Appalachia project in West Virginia: project coordinator Rachel Garringer and project specialists Corey Bonasso and Adrienne Juergens. Garringer's position is funded through High Rocks Academy by the Grow Appalachia project; Bonasso and Juergens are AmeriCorps volunteers.
AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency with the mission to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.
High Rocks Academy, which has a close association with Berea College, is sponsoring the project and the Grow Appalachia team will be based there.
Bonasso, originally from Carolina, holds a forestry management degree from WVU. The specialist said as food prices continue to rise, so does the importance of the Grow Appalachia project.
"The rising cost of food creates a real serious need for local food and this is probably the most direct way to empower people to produce food locally and to build our own local food economy - those that are producing a lot," he said. "It's direct action for providing food and creating local produce."
Juergens, who grew up in Buckeye, said improving the quality, as well as quantity, of food is one of the project's major goals.
"We don't know where our food's really coming from anymore," she said. "There's so many things in the news in the past few years with some awful strange things going on in the food industry. Just knowing where your food comes from and knowing that it's fresh and it's healthy and it's delicious is very important."
Juergens, who earned a bachelor's degree in environmental science from West Virginia Wesleyan University, stressed the economic benefits of producing and selling food locally.
"It also helps our economy here in Pocahontas County because we're keeping money within the community," she said. "We're buying locally, so those farmers are going to use the money more locally - that's really important.
Several local organizations are assisting with the project, including the WVU extension service, Pearl Buck Birthplace, NRAO, Renick Community Center, Greenbrier Economic Development Corporation and the Pretty Penny Restaurant. Twenty-two homeowners and organizations in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties have signed up to grow test gardens, where classes will be taught and produce marketed for local sale.
Much of the test garden produce will be donated to the Plant-A-Row program for needy families.
Garringer, a native of Greenbrier County, is expected to return to the county by April 20. She sent an email from Texas, relaying her excitement to start work on the local foods project.
"The potential for Grow Appalachia program to renew old traditions of food self-sufficiency in the area, to aid in developing a solid local foods economy and bring High Rocks' ever-important work to yet a new realm is incredibly exciting to me," she wrote. "I can't wait to get started and I can't wait to get home."
A schedule of Grow Appalachia events is not yet available, but will be posted in The Pocahontas Times and online at pocahontastimes.com. Classes will be free and open to anyone interested in growing, buying or selling local foods. Bonasso and Juergens welcomed interested persons to call them at 304-653-4891.
For more information on Grow Appalachia, see www.berea.edu/appalachiancenter/ growappalachia on the Internet. Info on the local food project can be found at www.pcfood.greenbriervalley.org/