Profile of a community leader and grower: Cathy Dueck of Ecology Park

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Wearing my other hat, as a freelance writer and owner of small print writing and consulting, I’ve been working on profiles of notable Trent University alumni who have stayed in “the Patch.”

I was very excited to get the opportunity to write about a dear friend and community hero, Cathy Dueck.

Because Cathy continues to be a leader in growing and promoting local food in Peterborough, I thought the profile would be a good fit here as well.

If any of you know Cathy, you’ll know that she doesn’t like the spotlight. Please refrain from passing this on to her before it goes to print. She’d block it in a fit of modesty!

Planting Seeds for Community Engagement: Cathy Dueck Helps Peterborough Grow

When Cathy Dueck attended Trent as a mature student in the 1980’s, she had no way of knowing that her research would help lead to the creation of Ecology Park, a beloved Peterborough institution and local landmark. She couldn’t have known that it would offer a rewarding career of learning, teaching, personal growth, and community empowerment. And yet, looking back on 20 years of education and gardening, she recognizes the importance of this Trent experience.

“Trent offered me a sense of confidence,” she recalls. “Confidence, and a sense of validation for the ideas that were being generated.”

With a strong personal belief in the importance of community, it is hardly surprising that Dueck also recognizes an atmosphere of support and nurturing as one of the keystones of her education. “I have lifelong friends at Trent,” she says. “I still have a valuable support network there.”

It takes a combination of bravery, perseverance, and dedication to attend university as a 36-year old mother of two. It then takes a good deal of effort to transform this experience into a meaningful award-winning career. It is these traits, however that have shaped much of the work that Dueck has put her mind – and her back – to.

dueck 2As a student, she was a pioneer of inter-disciplinary research, attempting to tackle a complex combination of sociological, psychological, and ecological issues through a single thesis. It was an approach that was, at the time, not at all common – or advised. And while it took some persuasiveness on her part, faculty at Trent came to see this approach as integral to the creation of educational community gardens – and to her thesis.

As the Manager of Ecology Park (and the Rogers Street Ecology Garden before that), Dueck has invented and introduced a host of programs that marry community engagement with public education and ecosystem preservation. In short, she has gotten her hands very dirty doing a tough task: getting the general public to embrace the importance of their natural world.

By all accounts, she has done her job well.

Dueck has been named an Honorary Master Gardener by the Master Gardiners of Ontario. Among her numerous personal achievements: a 2007 Canadian Network for Environmental Education National Award for Excellence in Environmental Education, as well as two 2009 awards from the Ontario Horticultural Association recognizing Community Improvement and Education. Ecology Park has received numerous awards as well, including the Evergreen Hands for Nature Award in 2005, and a Trillium Foundation Favourite Environmental Project in 2003.

Ecology Park was named Crown Jewel of Peterborough by the 2005 Provincial Communities in Bloom judges and is recognized in The Good Garden Guide: A Guide to Outstanding Gardens of Ontario and Restoring Nature’s Place by the Ontario Parks Association.

Of course, hands get even dirtier when up to the elbow in soil. Despite her role as Manager of Ecology Park – or perhaps because of it – Cathy can be found shoveling compost or transplanting native trees as often as she is planning the next great park program. She leads by example, setting an often daunting pace – one that staff and volunteers are eager to try and match. Her energy, her experience, her commitment to her work and to the park have earned her that kind of respect.

“Cathy’s commitment and dedication to preserving our native biodiversity is exceptional, as well as contagious,” explains Ecology Park Educator, Johanna Hart. “She inspires staff and volunteers around her to pour as much energy into their work at the Ecology Park as she does – whether it is in the plant nursery, with visiting school groups, or with the public.”

Cathy is quick to point out that the park is community project – one that takes many hands to run. And while Ecology Park recruits staff and volunteers from across Peterborough, there is always strong Trent representation.

This is due, in a large part, to the reputation that Ecology Park holds with Trent faculty. The park has become a regular destination for Teacher Education classes, placements, and practicums. It is also introduced to many classes in the Environmental Studies and Science departments.

If that weren’t enough, Cathy has recently started instructing in Environmental Studies courses related to food and community development.

dueckOftentimes, the lessons learned at Ecology Park are just as valuable – or even more so – than the ones gained at Trent. The park has a rich tradition of being a stepping stone for impressive careers in the environmental sector: Peter André, a Professor of Environmental Policy at Carleton University (and formerly at Trent) was one of the original student employees at the park, while Keith Stewart (PhD, York) another early student connection, spent 11 years with the Toronto Environmental Alliance before becoming the Director of Climate Change Programs with WWF Canada.

Then there are the countless staff and volunteers who have gone on to become teachers, environmental educators, and passionate environmentalists.

It’s a wonderful legacy. One that both Peterborough and Trent should be proud of.

Ecology Park will be celebrating its 20th growing season this year. It is a lasting testament to the willingness of a community to embrace meaningful ecological change. It is also testament to the dedication of a Trent alumnus who had a passion for community betterment.

Celebrations are in order.

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