“Being in a garden is where I feel most connected,” Cunnien said.
Julia Cunnien, 23, of Detroit was nominated as Volunteer of the Week for turning her volunteer efforts into not only her career but also her lifestyle.
Nominated by Repair the World Detroit, the organization says she actively gives her time and knowledge to local organizations like Yad Ezra, Voice for Earth Justice, Detroit Community Fridges and more.
Growing up in Canton, Cunnien says she was first introduced to community service and giving back as a teenager.
“I grew up going to Tamarack Camps, and one of my counselors explained to me how they were involved with Repair the World. As my interest grew, she explained how as a teenager, I could also get involved,” Cunnien said.
Cunnien first started with PeerCorps Detroit, Repair the World Detroit’s teen service-learning program, orientation.
The PeerCorps programs kick off with a weeklong orientation in the summer before the program starts in the fall.
After learning more about the program, Cunnien jumped right in for both her junior and senior years of high school. During the program, Cunnien says they had the opportunity to visit multiple places throughout Detroit they could serve during the year. That’s where she found her love for gardening.
“I volunteered mainly on an urban farm for Voices for Earth Justice in Detroit,” she said.
“Being in a garden is where I feel most connected. Learning and understanding the work, starting from putting my hands in the dirt and growing food that people may eat, it’s just amazing!”
Community service and working in the garden weren’t the only things Cunnien loved.
“The relationship building that happens when you’re in those spaces with people feels consistent,” she said. “At least when you pick a spot to continue to work in, and that’s what I did those two years. And so, I learned from the executive director at the time about gardening, the Earth and environment.”
Cunnien then went on to University of Michigan to obtain an environmental studies degree and joined a professional environmental fraternity while there.
Immediately after graduating in December 2020, Cunnien started work with AmeriCorps VISTA Life Remodeled as a youth coordinator.
“It was clear to me how different resources were spread amongst current populations,” she said. “For example, I helped a lot of the kids with their homework and helped them get enrolled in a free golf program. Being able to be next door to the school, we could show students opportunities they wouldn’t have even heard of.”
Cunnien says she was grateful to give her time, share her skills and build relationships with the students.
She worked with Yad Ezra in the garden as a Giving Gardens assistant, where she was on the other end, leading volunteer shifts and teaching kids and adults about farming.
“A couple months in with Yad Ezra, I then transitioned to working for Hazon Detroit, (a Bloomfield Township-based Jewish nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental awareness) as their seal of sustainability program manager.”
Now, Cunnien helps to put more gardens and other sustainable projects into action. She says giving her time has always been important to her because she was aware of everything she was given growing up.
“I have been born into this privilege, and I feel it’s important to use my time for the benefit of others. And also, it makes me feel good.”
Cunnien encourages others to give their time by looking at what skills you have and seeing how you can use it to serve someone else.
“I’m still learning. There’s so much to learn about farming, but it’s one of the things that some people would say I specialize in so I use it. Everyone has such different skills and experiences. So, start there and ask yourself, what are you good at doing?”
If you’re interested in learning more about some of the sustainable projects Cunnien is involved in, she is looking for volunteers to help with the sixth annual Michigan Jewish Food Festival, presented by Hazon Detroit on Sunday, Aug. 21.
“Our volunteer team is critical to the success of this impactful community event,” added Cunnien.
To find more information about the Michigan Jewish Food Festival, visit hazon.org/mjff. If you would like to nominate someone to be the next volunteer of the week, send a nomination with a short paragraph telling us why to email@example.com.