For Elizabeth and Greg Schmick, the weighty concepts of faith, the environment, poverty, employment and human relationships are tied together by Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler worm.
This humble creature ’s remarkable ability to process organic matter into compost fertilized a seemingly far-out idea that’s grown into a network of men and women who want to help those in need to help themselves.
“It’s relationships that are at the center of this,” says Elizabeth Schmick, a third-year DMU osteopathic medical student.
The Community Interfaith Worm Project (CIWP) sprouted from her husband Greg’s horticulture background and the couple’s residence at one of Des Moines’ three Catholic Worker Houses during Elizabeth’s first two years at DMU. Catholic Worker Houses are independent centers, not affiliated with the Catholic Church, in communities around the world to provide friendship, meals and other assistance to all.
“For many people who come here, this may be the only community they have,” Elizabeth says. “They can hang out, get their mail here, use the phone, take showers, have a meal. We work to make it easier for people to make good decisions.”
The thousands of meals served annually at the house where the Schmicks lived generate a lot of “green” waste, ripe for red wigglers to work their magic. After the worms digest organic matter, they leave behind excretions called castings, which stimulate super plant growth.
The couple had grown worms for composting in their native Portland, OR, so it was natural for them to do so in Des Moines. They added a dimension, though, designed to benefit Catholic Worker House guests – to employ those without jobs to fill teabag-sized organza sacks with the stuff to sell to gardeners and other plant-lovers.
That launched three years of experimenting with the product and packaging, learning pertinent agricultural regulations and networking with like-minded organizations to find a market.
“When we first started, we had all these nice, rustic bags. But this stuff is so alive, it ate them,” Greg recalls. Now the packaging materials better contain the castings and allow them to “breathe” to preserve their effectiveness. To ensure adequate quantities of castings, they are no longer produced in the Catholic Worker House basement, but rather supplied by a local farmer.
What didn’t change during CIWP’s evolution was the philosophy that started it.
“When we first looked at the project, we thought, ‘Yes! This creates jobs, and it’s recycling.’ But that isn’t the point. We didn’t want to get into a business,” Greg says. “This is about re-establishing relationships – with the earth, among all of us and in our relationship with our creator.”
Elizabeth points to the “transformation” she hopes people will experience when they purchase the castings. “When you do, you provide work and self-value for people who otherwise might not find unemployment. You also do something good for your plants and the environment,” she says. “And when you are watering your plants with it, we hope you’ll say a prayer for the person who assembled the bags.”
The power of worm poop
Annette Canada gets to work in a small classroom in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Des Moines. She has a tub of worm castings, a pile of “teabags” and a stack of small paper sacks, each of which will hold three teabags. She places a CIWP sticker on the front and attaches instructions for use on the back. The finishing touch: a stamp on the paper sack that includes the phrase, “Made by Annette.” She is paid for the finished product, on which she is clearly sold.
“My oldest grandson gave me a plant, but the flower didn’t grow,” says Canada, CIWP’s first castings bagger. “I put some of the castings on it, and the flower got so big, the plant wouldn’t fit on my table.”
For Canada and others involved in the project, the power of worm poop far exceeds its perqs for plants. She once received a letter from a woman in Arizona, who’d somehow acquired CIWP castings, expressing gratitude to Canada for producing the product.
“She was telling me what the dirt does to her plants, and she sent along a photo of her flowers,” Canada recalls. “I just cried when I saw those flowers.”
St. Paul’s came to support CIWP when congregation member Helen Dagley met Greg Schmick at a “Hope for the Hungry” conference in Des Moines. She connected the Schmicks with St. Paul’s deacon, John Doherty.
“This is the kind of ministry we want to be involved in, with what the project does for Annette, the environment and in community outreach,” Doherty says.
In addition to CIWP’s goals to create jobs, decrease environmental waste and encourage spirituality, it also seeks “to help other organizations raise money for projects that promote a more just and loving society,” states its website, http://worm project.wordpress.com. Organizations can purchase pre-assembled castings bags for $3 per package and then sell them for $5.
Organizations also can order kits of unassembled materials for $1.50 per finished bag if they agree to hire and support an assembler who struggles to find work – the website suggests people “who are homeless, undereducated, formerly imprisoned, suffering with mental illness, struggling to overcome addictions or haunted by the horrors of violence, abuse and war” – and then pay that person at least $1 per completed package. That lets the organization raise more money while interacting with someone its members might not otherwise meet.
“It’s all about people trying to live their faith a little bit more and to get to know people in their community on a personal level,” Elizabeth Schmick says. “Everybody loses when marginalization occurs.”
“A catalyst for something bigger”
Beth Runcie worked as a graphic designer for nine years before enrolling in DMU’s osteopathic medical program. That transition became serendipitous when she met Elizabeth Schmick at orientation: After Runcie learned about the worm castings project, she contributed her skills to design its logo and support its communication efforts.
“The project has so many facets. It invites people in from various groups,” she explains. “If you like ‘green,’ it’s good for the environment. It can be a fundraiser for your group. It connects people in a way that brings awareness and makes it hard for you to turn your back on others. Everyone understands it from a different perspective.”
Runcie and the Schmicks are quick to point out that CIWP is not about them. Intent to keep the project “spiritually centered,” they made connections that established the project in Davenport, IA, and likely will spark ones in other states. Beth’s and Elizabeth’s third-year rotations may limit their involvement in the project, at least short-term, but that’s fine with them.
“The idea is to start something that can continue on its own,” Runcie says. “It’s gone from a good idea to a catalyst for something bigger.”
The two DMU students took CIWP to that higher level in March when they were accepted by the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), an annual conference established by President Bill Clinton to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world. More than 1,000 students from all 50 states, 82 countries and more than 300 universities participated at this year’s event, held in Washington, DC.
CIWP was announced as Schmick and Runcie’s “commitment” during a session on environment and climate change. For CGI U’s exchange fair, they created a display and recruited Elizabeth’s sister, Heidi, to transport from her home in Virginia a live worm farm and plants grown with the worm castings. When they arrived, however, they discovered a communications snafu left them without a table at the fair. It was another serendipitous turn of events.
“We showed up with all these plants and stuff,” Elizabeth says. “Fortunately, the staff got us a table that turned out to have the best location. It was another sign we’re just vehicles. I had a sore throat from talking to so many people.”
The story of CIWP, true to its mission, is the story of entrepreneurial, altruistic people who took a leap of faith on an idea to benefit others. “Beth and I have so much fun with this project,” says Elizabeth, now back in Portland on rotation. “With the people involved, we can do whatever we want. We’re like a bunch of 11-year-olds building a fort.”