Creators of America’s Largest School Garden Program

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Green Our Planet Co-Founders Ciara Byrne & Kim MacQuarrie

From the Article: Desert Gem: Ciara Byrne and Kim MacQuarrie

Emmy Award Winning Filmmakers Create a Nourishing Legacy in Las Vegas by Founding the Nonprofit, Green Our Planet

By Marsala Rypka
Luxury Las Vegas, May 2015

Green Our Planet founders at Masai Mara KenyaKim MacQuarrie, an Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker, and his life partner, Ciara Byrne, have always been interested in exploring different cultures, shining a light on the plight of endangered species and supporting nonprofit organizations committed to making the world a better place.

Initially, they started their conservation and crowd-funding organization Green Our Planet to raise money to support environmentalists like their friend, the celebrated Kenyan born, paleoanthropologist and conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey, who has been working for decades to save elephants from extinction.

Recently Ciara and Kim returned from Kenya after spending a month with Dr. Leakey, who may be portrayed by Brad Pitt in Angelina Jolie’s next film, “Africa.”

Though they’ve traveled the globe, Ciara and Kim have made an enormous contribution locally.

“We came to Las Vegas in 2010 to make a film about the Great Recession and how it affected the community, but we didn’t expect to stay,” says Ciara. “What’s happened in the past few years has surprised us.”

It started with them founding their conservation organization Green Our Planet and then trying out their new crowd-funding platform on local green projects to work out bugs before they attempted to raise money for projects in Africa. They decided to raise money for school gardens after a horticulturalist friend said there was quite a demand, but the Clark County School District had no money.

“Some amazing teachers and principals were excited because they saw the valuable opportunity vegetable gardens provide for students to learn about ecology, biology, horticulture, nutrition, science and math,” says Ciara. “Raising money turned out to be only one of the challenges. Most schools couldn’t maintain the gardens themselves, and there weren’t any approved lesson plans for teachers to follow that allowed gardens to be used as a teaching model for those subjects.” subjects.”

Ever the problem solver, Ciara got 40 corporations to become sponsors or partners. Then she met with Bryan Vellinga, former director of horticulture at the Bellagio, who started his own company, Garden Farms, five years earlier. She arranged for the schools to have their own farmer who tends their garden once a week. Garden Farms and Green Our Planet have been partners ever since.

Green Our Planet and Three Square Food Bank then jointly applied for a highly competitive national grant from the American Honda Foundation. When they were awarded $65,000, the two organizations used the money to hire three farmers who collaborated with 12 CCSD teachers for six months, which resulted in an 800-page document filled with lessons certified by the Clark County School District.

Green Our Planet also enlisted the help of 40 chefs, some from the top Vegas restaurants, who volunteer to teach the children how to prepare the food they’ve grown.

“What started as one school in 2012 has blossomed into 65 gardens and hopefully 100 by the end of the year,” says Ciara.

“Those raised vegetable beds are no different than a patch of the Amazon,” explains Kim. “The Amazon has a larger canopy of green and is alive with monkeys and all kinds of wildlife, but the gardens offer the same wonder to the kids as the jungle does for adults.”

So who are these two amazing adventurers who are passionate about protecting endangered animals and helping educate and inspire humans?

Kim’s Life Before Ciara

Kim was seven when his family moved from Las Vegas, where he went to Robert E. Lake Elementary School and Valley High School. “Things have come full circle,” Kim says with a smile. “Valley has a garden and Robert E. Lake is getting one this month.”

Always an avid reader, Kim credits books as the reason he has traveled so extensively.

“As a child, I loved the series “Inside the Earth,” by Edgar Rice Burrows, which told stories about scientists who drilled down inside the earth and discovered a jungle filled with dinosaurs, native tribes, wild animals, and a hero. Of course, I wanted to be that hero. By the time I was in fifth grade, books had allowed me to travel the world and to the moon and back.

“I also read a book called, “I Married Adventure,” by Osa Johnson, who wrote about the adventures she went on with her husband, Martin, who was a photographer and a documentary filmmaker. The couple traveled via boat and airplane to exotic places like the South Pacific Islands and Northern Borneo. I dreamed of an adventurous life like Martin Johnson.”

Kim also loved biology. He built his first aquarium when he was five. He had lots of jars with holes in the tops filled with critters. By the time he was in junior high, his room was like a jungle with bubbling fish tanks filled with turtles, lizards, and even a caiman.

“When I wasn’t in the jungle in my room, I was scouring the Vegas desert. The runoff of water from the Stardust golf course created a riparian, swamp-like environment. My friends and I would go on expeditions to find frogs and lizards,” laughs Kim.

In high school in his junior year his Western civilization teacher exposed him to cultures like the Byzantines, Romans, and Egyptians. In his junior year at UNLV at UNLV, Kim decided he wanted to study in France. At the time, there wasn’t a Study Abroad program at UNLV< so he applied through St. Mary’s College in Maryland.

“I was 20 when I hitchhiked all over Europe in 1978. I hiked the Swiss Alps; went to Italy and Morocco, spent two months on the Brittany coast of France, worked at a vineyard, and spent a year in Paris,” says Kim. “Once you see the world from another culture’s viewpoint, you become a world citizen rather than just an American.”

After reading books like “African Genesis” by Robert Ardrey about the evolution of man, Kim decided to get his Master’s degree. Fluent in Spanish he studied anthropology at the University of Lima. He spent four years in Peru and did his field studies in the Upper Amazon, where he lived with the remote Yora tribe for six months.

“It was as exotic as I could have hoped for,” says Kim. “There are still about 50 uncontacted tribes in the Amazon along the Peru/Brazil border. I wrote about my experiences for the Lima Times newspaper and sold those articles to news outlets around the world.”

Back in the U.S., Kim got a call from a biologist at Princeton University who offered him the opportunity to write a bilingual coffee table book about Manu National Park in the Amazon, one of the largest rainforest parks in the world.

After that Kim worked for a small film company in Colorado. His first project was a script for a 90-minute documentary about Manu National Park for the Discovery Channel that won him two Emmys.

After that, Kim was hired by PBS to do another film on Manu National Park, only this time about the wildlife, not the natives. Kim met Ciara when he brought the rough cut of that film to Devillier Donegan Enterprises, a film development/distribution company that was affiliated with Disney/ABC TV.

Ciara’s Life Before Kim

Ciara was born in Dublin, Ireland. “My dad worked on oil rigs, and in 1974, when I was four, my parents moved the family to Tehran, Iran.” They lived there until 1978. Then we went to Malta for six months before going back to Dublin, where I went to an all girls’ Catholic high school.
“There’s no question I love traveling so much because I was exposed to such diverse cultures at such a young age,” she says. “I’ve been eager to travel the world since I was nine.”

From the age of 16, she spent a lot of her summers in Paris. After high school, she studied economics, German and French at the Technische Universität in West Berlin.

“I’ve been in several places when memorable things happened,” marvels Ciara. “I was in Berlin in 1989 right after the wall came down and Germany was reunited. I went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, when the anti-Communist revolution opened the country up to visitors. And I was in Russia in 1991 during a coup when the government tried to overthrow President Gorbachev.”

Ciara was 23 when the Green Card she applied for came in the mail.

“Unemployment was high in Ireland so I decided to go to the U.S. I didn’t feel safe living in a big city like New York, so I went to Washington D.C., which I thought was a small town. We didn’t have Google back then and I had no idea D.C. had such a high crime rate,” says Ciara.

She arrived in 1993, not knowing anyone, and for a brief time she worked at a Mexican restaurant, but she was fired because she couldn’t pronounce the Spanish items on the menu.

“It was a disaster, and I was close to going back to Ireland,” says Ciara. “But first I sent my resume to every TV station in D.C. “I was always interested in theater. I grew up listening to great storytellers like my mom and people in pubs and I equated TV with storytelling. I thought the closest thing to Irish TV was the BBC, so I went to their office in D.C. and sat in the reception area hoping to meet with the bureau chief.”

Ciara waited three hours. When the receptionist told the bureau chief how long she’d been there, he said anyone who waited three hours deserved a job. That’s how Ciara became a BBC research assistant.

She spent eight months there before getting hired at Devillier Donegan Enterprises, a company that worked with blue chip filmmakers’ selling their projects to various networks.

“I started as assistant to the president who taught me everything about putting deals together,” she says. Ciara got promoted to program manager. One night she went home and watched the rough cut of a film for a new PBS/BBC series called “The Living Edens.” The film was about Manu National Park in the Amazon rainforest and was by a film director named Kim MacQuarrie.

“I couldn’t wait to meet this woman,” laughs Ciara. “I thought she had the soul of a poet.” She soon found out Kim was a man when he came to D.C. to pitch another series called Lost Worlds about Papua New Guinea, the Congo, and Iceland,” says Ciara. “I thought he was cute, and I wanted to work with him.”

In 1997, Kim’s second film about Manu won the Best Limited Series award at the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Of course Ciara went to look after Kim, who was her client, and it was in Jackson Hole that she confessed to him that she wanted to produce and direct films.

After Jackson Hole, Kim spent a year on and off in Eastern Siberia filming grizzly bears, Steller’s Sea Eagles, salmon, puffins, and Arctic foxes for a film called Kamchatka: Siberia’s Forbidden Wilderness. “It was untamed there like Alaska had been 100 years ago,” says Kim.

Kim and Ciara Together

While Kim was in Russia, Ciara moved to London where she ran the development team for Lion Television. “I’m really good at creating show ideas,” she says. I developed and sold a ton of programs, including a three-part PBS/BBC series that kept me in Egypt on and off for a year.”

The two stayed in touch via email every three or four months. When Ciara and her boyfriend broke up she went skiing in Vail and reconnected with Kim in Colorado Springs.

“His living room was filled with moving boxes destined for New York,” says Ciara. “I scratched out the address and wrote mine on them instead. Not long after, Kim moved to London with me.”

Ciara persuaded Lion TV to let her open an office in New York. Their lease on an apartment near the World Trade Center took effect on 9/10/01 and on 9/11/01, Kim was flying from London to New York when his plane was forced to return to Gatwick Airport.

Eventually, Ciara opened a second office in Los Angeles and her staff, which grew to 60, turned out 60 – 80 hours of TV each year, including the “History Detectives,” now in its 14th year on PBS.

Every two weeks, Ciara went back and forth between New York and L.A. while Kim stayed on the West Coast working on several films and on his book, The Last Days of Incas, which Simon & Schuster published in 2007.

After two years of commuting, Ciara was burnt out. She took a year off while Kim worked on a reality series called 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock, who made the docudrama Super Size Me in 2004.

A year later, they moved back to Washington D.C., to work as show runners on a series called “The Tattoo Hunter” for the Discovery Channel. Ciara held down the fort in D.C. while Kim directed an episode about a tribe that scarified their bodies to look like crocodiles.

“Papua New Guinea was wild,” says Kim, who spent time filming former cannibals at an initiation ceremony where boys became men. He also visited a spirit house where they still had racks on the walls that once held skulls.

After an intense year often working seven days a week, Ciara and Kim took a year off. One would think traveling would be last thing they’d do, but they wanted to experience the world at a more leisurely pace.

They started in Ireland, then flew to Buenos Aries, where Ciara took tango lessons and Kim hung out in cafes and wrote. They next went to Peru, where they visited Machu Picchu and hiked the Inca Trail. They went to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Colombia, then spent a month in Bali exploring the island on mopeds. Then they flew to Bangkok where they rented an apartment for two months and explored places like Chiang Mai, the most cultural city in Northern Thailand. They spent three weeks in Vietnam and two weeks in Cambodia, where they visited the Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious monument in the world.

“I’d get up before dawn every day, get in a rickshaw and take pictures as the sun rose, while Ciara slept in,” laughs Kim. “From there we flew to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), Hanoi and the border of China. During our three weeks in Egypt, Ciara gave me a personal tour of sites like King Tuts Tomb, the Valley of the Kings, and the Nile. Then we went to Granada and to Seville, Spain, where Ciara’s uncle has a place, then back to Ireland.”

Green Our Planet: How The Idea Was Born

“Traveling the world made us realize how amazing the planet is and that it’s in peril,” says Ciara. “That’s how the seeds were sown for Green Our Planet.”

Over an eight month period in 2009, Kim traveled 4,500 miles from Columbia to Patagonia doing research for a book called Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries that included the Argentine leader Che Guevara, the Columbian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The book will be released in December.

In early 2010, Ciara and Kim returned to Kim’s hometown, and Las Vegas has been home ever since. The couple, co-founders of Green Our Planet and currently making a documentary about Dr. Leakey, still plan to work with conservation organizations around the world, but for now they feel they’re supposed to be.

Ciara’s eyes light up when she explains how kids in grades K-5 in the garden program have jobs. “The kindergarteners are the caretakers in charge of picking up leaves and trash. They learn how the sun, water, soil, and seeds work together. The 1st graders are in charge of planting the seeds and collecting them when the plants go back to seed. The 2nd graders go out with magnifying glasses and look for ladybugs, which are good, and aphids, which are bad. The 3rd graders learn about composting and science of the soil. The 4th graders harvest the produce and work with the chefs learning how to make smoothies, soup, and kale chips. The 5th graders learn about GMOs and pesticides and how to run a Farmers Market.

“We’re working hard through Green Our Planet to make sure the school gardens are sustainable” she says. “The initial cost of a garden is about $9,000 and $1,800 a year to maintain it after that. We’ve shown that when people in the community empower the teachers magical things happen. Our goal is to have 100 long-term sponsors, one for each garden.” In addition to corporate sponsorships, support comes from individuals and family foundations like the $65,000 Green Our Planet received from the Consumer Electronics Association.

“It’s rewarding to see the joy kids get when they see a seed miraculously become a plant,” says Ciara. “A few weeks ago we got a note from a farmer who says the students at a particular school are borderline obsessive about their gardens. We want that emotional connection.”

“I marvel at nature,” says Kim, It doesn’t matter if I’m filming northern fur seals out on the Aleutian Islands, grizzly bears in the Siberian wilderness, an African safari, or a kid talking about the vegetable garden at his school. I remember the smile on one boy’s face as he pointed to the school’s salad bar and said, ‘It’s amazing to see how a few seeds grew into all this.’

“If we can help kids fall in love with their garden then we’re helping them fall in love with nature. And if they fall in love with nature, and maybe when they grow up they will help conserve the planet. Ciara and I may go off on another adventure one day, but we want to leave something positive behind. What we’re doing is helping schools install “miracles in boxes, because life is a miracle.”

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Green Our Planet is a creative, entrepreneurial, non-profit conservation organization that operates a free environmental crowdfunding platform and also runs the largest school garden program in the United States.

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