The Learning Grove

NYCA Takes Its Mantra -- 'Grow!' -- and Watches It Spread

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NYCA, an Encinitas, Calif.-based agency, takes its "Grow!" mantra and uses it to help its community bloom; Michael Mark, CEO-creative director, tells how.

NYCA garden
The Learning Grove, before (inset) and after.
The idea for the Learning Grove was planted six years before we broke ground at Horton Elementary School in a low-income section of San Diego.

At NYCA, we have a mantra: "Grow!" It reminds us what we are here to do every day. After the 2003 wildfires, which burned hundreds of homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of people in San Diego, including our agency, we considered what that really means.

Our philosophy is that we grow our clients' businesses with inspired ideas, but we must also help grow our community. So six weeks after the fire, we closed the agency for a day and all 32 of us planted hundreds of oak saplings in a forest that stood charred, with trunks and branches still looking shocked and emaciated as if caught in mid-stride, having failed to escape.

In 2007, the fires roared again, and once again we were evacuated. That's the Southern California laid-back lifestyle: sun, beach, earthquakes, fires. And again we went out and replanted. This time we were 38 gardeners. It was good team-building, spiritual. We got dirty, and closer to each other and our community.

Last year one of our art directors, Ian, suggested a novel idea: Let's not wait for the next fire to do some more planting. He told us about the inner-city elementary school where his wife teaches. There was an area on the school property that the children couldn't use because it was overgrown with weeds, used as a garbage dump and dangerous due to rusty cans and broken bottles.

Our plan was to make those grounds safe for the kids again and to inspire them to see what could be. We called the area the "Learning Grove" -- an extension of the "Grove" that we nurture behind our agency, where we plant a fruit tree for each of our clients. This reminds us that it takes a great deal of attention and caring to fulfill the promise of relationships. The Grove has become a source of pride -- and some delicious fruit -- for our clients and NYCA-ers.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Creating the Learning Grove took months. We had to work with the school district; raise money; clear out the grounds; prepare the soil for planting; put in an irrigation system with the donated help of professional landscapers; build planter boxes with our own hands; design discreet areas for herbs, flowers and succulents; transplant apple trees donated by neighbors and local nurseries; and, in between, we did some of our other work.

NYCA-ers also volunteered their evenings and weekends. We were surprised to discover many hidden skills: We had talented carpenters and landscapers who, by themselves, built beautiful flower boxes and benches (so where are those people when a light bulb burns out at the agency?).

We rented and borrowed trucks to haul in decorative boulders and mature shade trees. And we even debated the virtues of squash vs. tomatoes vs. cucumbers. In the end, we sat with the kids of the school to make decisions, and we all planted together. The children now regularly tend the garden; eat the fruit and vegetables they grow; and plant the next season's crops.

Principal Robin McCulloch told us at the dedication ceremony: "This is a learning experience many of our children don't get to have at home because they don't have room for a garden. When children have authentic experiences like this, it contributes to their ability to read, write, compute and understand their world."

Students handed out packets of carrot and sunflower seeds, and enthusiastically talked about how much they had learned. One of the most satisfying moments was when Luiz, a young boy who was moving during the summer, said, "I hope the kids who come here next year take really good care of it. We all have to help water and stuff."

The agency produces every day but, in many ways, this is our greatest creation. Although the economy is challenging, our will is stronger. We hope to continue to find more gardens to plant -- for imaginations to grow.

A final thought: The advertising business often gets maligned for its self-aggrandizing, manipulative practices. I want to say that I continually meet the most generous, good-spirited and deeply caring people in our industry. We can be proud of the good works we create within and outside our walls.

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