Humans of Harker: Purposeful planting

Ann Ryan cultivates kindness in her community, one act of service at a time


Irene Yuan

“[Gardening] gives me a little bit of control over something. Sometimes I feel like I can do all this studying, but I still can’t control the grade or know the questions. But I can take this weed out. I will beat this crabgrass, and then I can listen to music or relax,” Ann Ryan (12) said.

With a small, lightweight backpack slung over her shoulders, Ann Ryan (12) strides across the empty parking lot of her elementary school, heading purposefully for the metal gate of the school’s garden. Deftly spinning the numbers on the combination lock with a practiced ease, she quickly enters and heads for the shed containing gardening materials, glancing over the updated to-do list on the whiteboard before she exits.

Although volunteering at the Booksin Elementary garden is a relatively new activity for her, having only started around March of 2021, Ann found herself quickly diving deep into the activity. Over the summer, Ann would make the 1.2 mile trek from her house to the elementary school to work in the garden for three to four hours every day. Now, during the school year, she spends four to eight hours at the elementary school every week.

Ann sees several different payoffs from this activity. The first: the certainty of weeding.

“[Gardening] gives me a little bit of control over something,” Ann said. “Sometimes I feel like I can do all this studying but I still can’t control the grade or know the questions … but I can take this weed out. I will beat this crabgrass … and then I can listen to music or relax.”

In addition to Ann, a handful of other volunteers work in the garden. But with wide-ranging commitments, schedules rarely align, and as a result, this activity remains a relatively solitary one for Ann. Despite that, she finds value in interacting with others when she can.

“Every once in a while, I coordinate with other people who know a lot more, which is cool to learn how all the gardening stuff works,” she said.

With all that she has learned from spending time in the garden, Ann looks forward to helping lead one of the garden-hosted lessons for elementary schoolers in the future.

Teaching and gardening are not the only ways Ann interacts with her community. Through walking, running and hiking, she learns more about and forms relationships with the people around her.

“I did a lot of hiking with my mom starting out, and I continued it on my own as I got older,” she said. “I turned to walking around the neighborhood more as [COVID-19] started, as I didn’t feel comfortable going out on trails yet when it was really early and no one knew anything [about the pandemic].”

Since Ann walks long distances (around 12 miles a day) but stays within the confines of her neighborhood, she often encounters many different people and has been able to connect with them.

“I like [walking around my neighborhood] because it has allowed me to meet almost everyone in my neighborhood,” Ann said. “[During the pandemic] I made the effort to try to smile or say, ‘Hi’ at people … it felt good to have that little human interaction. And then people started to recognize me and I started recognizing them.”

Having built a relationship with many people in her neighborhood, Ann also began to walk dogs and house sit for neighbors. On a given day, she usually walks one or two dogs. As she doesn’t have any pets of her own, this activity allows Ann to both interact with animals and help out at the same time.

One characteristic — the way Ann remembers the little things that come up in conversations — has helped her to build relationships. Friend Lucy Ge (12) remembers one such occasion.

“As a friend she’s super considerate, and she’s very thoughtful,” Lucy said. “For my last birthday I mentioned to her that I was craving cosmic brownies, and she baked me a whole sheet of cosmic brownies, which is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.”

This kindness extends to close friends and neighbors alike. Ann makes an effort to be conscious of the people around her.

“She’s very sensitive to others’ feelings and she always wants to make sure that other people feel comfortable and feel happy,” friend Arianna Weaver (12) said.

In addition to dog-walking and gardening, Ann combines her interests with service in other activities she pursues as well. As a freshman, she decided to start crocheting because of her previous interest in sewing. Along with reaching personal goals, such as making a sweater that took her three months to complete, Ann also crochets scarves and hats for an organization called Operation Gratitude. The organization sends care packages to deployed troops, veterans, first responders, recruit graduates, wounded heroes and caregivers and military families. Over the past three years, she estimates that she has made around 100 scarves and hats.

“[Volunteering with crocheting] makes stuff more purposeful,” she said. “[One challenge for me is] staying motivated because when things come out wrinkled or you find out you dropped a stitch and you have to take away hundreds, it makes you want to throw it all away … But most of the things I’ve made [were] like, ‘I’m making this to donate so I should go back and make it right,’ or like, ‘This is a gift for someone.’”

Juggling several different service-based activities, Ann finds it helpful to combine her interests in any way that she can. For example, she reads as an escape from stress and school. But to maximize efficiency, Ann consumes novels in audiobook format, perfect for enjoying while on her daily walks.

Most importantly, purpose plays a big role in how she decides what to commit her time to, acting as the throughline that connects all her activities.

“I like the idea of having a point in doing things,” Ann said. “Sometimes [I spiral] into, ‘Why am I bothering to do this?’ so it helps me take meaning in all my actions.”

But even with purpose, lack of time limits her progress in certain activities, such as dance, which she has sometimes found difficult to accept in the past.

“[I keep going by] reminding myself why I’m doing it,” she said. “Because I spread my time in so many different ways, I can’t always dedicate as much to something like dance as some other people do, and the consequence of that is not accelerating as fast as others or sometimes even being stagnant. [It’s] accepting that I’m doing this for a different reason other than to always be the best at something.”

Having started dancing when she was 2 years old, Ann has pursued dancing for most of her life. Over time, she has had to cut down time-wise, but she still manages to hold a perspective that allows her to enjoy the activity.

“You can choose how much to focus on, you put as much effort as you get out,” she said. “I can be like, ‘I’m exhausted today, and the only thing I can think about is making my arms look nice’ or ‘I have a lot of energy tonight, I can think about my abs, my shoulders, my arms, my legs rotating at the thighs, all that stuff.’”

At the end of the day, like many of her other activities, her love for dance boils down to the supportive environment and the people. In her various communities, Ann finds ways to serve and do the things she loves at the same time.

“She’s always there for me when I miss class and she helps me take notes,” friend Sophie Zhang-Murphy (12) said. “If I ever need help, she’ll be there.”