Rope Swinging Their Way to Team Leadership: Gardens for Health Prepares for Rapid Expansion

Laura LaViska, Media Lab Intern, Merrimack College 2014

When asked what the most memorable part of Gardens for Health’s [GHI] recent trip to Rwanda was, both Jessie and Eve lit up over the same shared moment: the rope swing. Confused? So was I. However, after hearing their story, I smiled at the moment just the same. Jessie Cronan, Executive Director, and Eve Deveau, U.S. Operations Manager, of the Next Mile Project’s member organization, Gardens for Health, took twenty of their senior staff to a leadership retreat on an island off of Uganda. To both of their surprise, many of the Rwandan staff had never been swimming before! This paved the way for a special experience to be had together. With life vests and an encouraging support system, their friends not only swam for the first time, they swung off a rope swing!

Gardens for Health operates through partnerships with local health centers in Rwanda to fight childhood malnutrition. Currently, the nonprofit is undergoing a period of rapid growth. In September of 2012, their partnerships amounted to three member clinics. Since September 2013, the collaboration grew to include eight member clinics. Within the next year, Gardens for Health will be doubling in size by partnering with eight additional member clinics – adding up to a total of sixteen clinics! 

With very hectic times predicted in the near future, the staff coming together with senior leadership became essential in preparation for this organization’s ultimate success. Deveau explained one aspect they talked to the Rwandan staff about was their communications program.

“We talked about our communications strategy and why we interview families in Rwanda that we work with. We explained that by sharing the great work our staff is doing with people back here [in America], and telling their stories, it then makes people want to be part of the movement!” said Deveau. One of GHI’s main goals she says is, “trying to work on our relationships with donors and people on the ground.”

This was the first time GHI had ever done a retreat of this kind and they planned it with great purpose and impressive innovation. In each tent one Rwandan staff member, and one American staff member camped out together, which in itself embodied the cohesion that the trip was aiming to achieve. Through a variety of activities ranging from group yoga sessions, to competitive capture the flag games, Cronan and Deveau said Gardens for Health leaders bonded in a way they had yet to experience before. It was a time to reflect on the current growth and then think critically about what’s ahead.

Along with bonding as an organization, the retreat functioned as a communicative tool working to coalesce around the big picture goals of the entire organization. They divided up into groups where they talked about their individual roles in painting that picture! This, Cronan and Deveau both agreed, was one of the best outcomes of the trip.

Using the retreat as a tool, GHI was able to communicate important information throughout all levels of their organization. They were able to target issues that the field educators face (the staff whom work directly with the Rwandan families), and then give information that could be passed along and vice versa.

They didn’t know it at the time, but helping each other on the rope swing in Uganda strengthened the bonds of the GHI team, preparing them for challenges that await them in the future. Cronan said that although she knows the hard work that will go into making next year a success, she is excited about the expansion; it has been one of her goals since she joined Gardens for Health. Cronan and Deveau spent three weeks in Rwanda and three days on the island retreat, in doing so, they paved the way for one strong organization going forward.

To see all of GHI’s partners, visit

This slideshow requires JavaScript.