Crouched down in the dirt, tugging at crabgrass and dandelions, Sarah Perry ’07 felt free. More than a decade later, she still recalls that as a Mary Washington student volunteer at Downtown Greens, she found a sort of solace in weeding, and a passion began to take root.
A bit of a dreamer in college, Perry put classes aside for a while to travel the country, racking up miles on her parents’ Toyota Corolla and sleeping under the stars. But the more she wandered away from Mary Washington, the more it kept calling her back. She’d earn a bachelor’s degree in studio art and rake in a resume full of volunteer work. Along the way, she’d find a fondness for Fredericksburg, a love of the liberal arts and a professor who made her “feel like anything was possible.”
And, for Perry, it was.
In 2013, she became executive director of the public green space where she’d volunteered as a student. She’s used the lessons she learned as an undergrad to grow Downtown Greens, a nonprofit in the city’s Darbytown area. “Everything I do is meticulous to the end,” she said. “My art classes really drove that point home. It has to be beautiful from all angles.”
Sharing an outdoor oasis with all of Fredericksburg has many angles. With help from her staff and board of directors, Perry plans workshops and fundraisers, oversees the budget and brand, organizes seminars and summer camps. She writes grants, maintains the website, designs fliers, arranges annual events like the Downhome Ball and the Fork It Over Festival, and takes care of all the tasks in between.
She also recruits volunteers, many of whom are Mary Washington students, like she was in 2005, when then-director Laura Shepherd ’85 coaxed her into coming onboard. Shepherd formed the organization in 1995 with a third UMW grad, Lisa Biever ’96.
The work is important, Perry said, because exposure to nature supports health and wellness, reduces stress, improves air quality and so much more. “A lot of people we serve don’t have a front or backyard,” she said. “In a city with more and more development, we are everybody’s backyard.”
Open to the public from sunrise to sunset, every day of the year, Downtown Greens’ 2.8 acres includes gardens with plants, benches and pathways; children’s play areas; and a community beekeeping station. “Anyone who’s having a bad day can come and just sit in the park and read a book and be by themselves,” Perry said.
She had plenty of green space growing up in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula area, where she’d spend hours riding horses and roaming the woods. By the time she transferred to Mary Washington as a sophomore, she longed for a taste of the city. She found it in Fredericksburg, working in restaurants, visiting art galleries and coffee shops, and making connections, including that fortuitous friendship with Shepherd, who spurred her volunteer work at Downtown Greens.
On campus, Perry focused on sculpture and took classes in drawing, photography, textiles and more. Backed by her anything-is-possible advisor, Professor of Art and Art History Carole Garmon, she followed her passions. Her award-winning costumes – she’s crafted outfits from her grandmother’s curtains, container lids, pantyhose, even live plants – earned her a semester of study in the Big Apple.
Garmon recognized Perry’s drive to make art, but also a difference, and saw the pieces coming together. “Her love of community, how she could impact the area, Sarah automatically got into that kind of thing,” Garmon said. “What she has done with Downtown Greens is amazing.”
After college, Perry lived for six years overseas, where she continued combining her interests, performing and directing in the French circus and theater, and studying sustainable gardening.But she kept coming back to Downtown Greens, volunteering on her trips home before eventually taking the helm.
Under her watch, the group’s educational offerings have blossomed. She won Fox 5’s Hometown Hero award last year for the Youth Farm Program she launched to teach children to grow, cook and sell their own food. Among other contributions, Perry also co-founded the Good Turn Earth Company to rescue food waste from landfills.
Through all her success, she remains grounded. Outside her office at the corner of Charles and Dixon streets – the one with the big, pink, painted-on flower – she waves to passersby and greets neighborhood kids fresh off the bus. And sometimes, on warm sunny days, she still crouches down in the dirt to pull weeds.