Johns travels this path outside her window often. It leads to an open area of land with a tin sign that reads “The Sassafras Community Gardens.” The gardens are a part of Sassafras Center for Arts and Environment, a community organization that Johns and others recently created.
As the president of Sassafras, Johns aims to combine arts and the environment in various community outreach projects and events. The organization is nearing its second birthday and hopes to become an integral part of the community for years to come, Johns said.
The idea for Sassafras blossomed from a combination of factors. When Johns and her husband moved into a Tuscaloosa home shaded by a canopy of decades-old trees, they found a plot of land and an unoccupied home across the street. Once they cleared it of the tall brush, the couple wanted to put the sunny space to use.
“We thought, ‘What if we make this a kind of community area for the whole neighborhood?’” Johns said.
Since then, the board of directors at Sassafras has established a mission statement, and the Sassafras Center for Arts and Environment has become an incorporated organization. They have applied to receive 501(c)(3) status, which is a status applied to non-profit organizations that are tax deductible.
“We have been dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s,” Johns said.
Sassafras has plans to perform a green renovation on the unoccupied home by using sustainable building materials and solar power, she said. The home would become a common area where things such as guitar lessons could happen alongside other kinds of events.
“The most environmental building is a building that has already been built, so we want to work with what we have,” Johns said. “The goal is for the renovation to a be a demonstration for the community.”
Just behind the home is a community garden, where 20 gardeners grow various vegetables and flowers. Johns was weeding her plot of the garden when she found Sassafras, a deciduous tree. The tree has three types of leaves: a single teardrop shape, a mitten shape and a three-fingered leaf shape. It was then that the name for the organization came to her.
“It came in a flash,” Johns said. “It’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re trying to combine the community, arts and the environment.”
Jay Cervino, director of systems and networks services at The University of Alabama, is the chair of the arts committee at Sassafras. Cervino comes from an artistic background and family and has remained involved through community work.
“I love to volunteer my time, especially with community outreach. I have my own creative endeavors, but I really like organizing creative endeavors,” Cervino said.
The fall schedule includes events for Green Apple Day, a worldwide project that supports students learning in clean air, as well as a “yarn bombing,” which involves knitters designing and building structures for the Sassafras grounds. Later in the fall, Sassafras will partner with Bike-Walk Tuscaloosa for a bike and art ride, Cervino said.
“I think one of the things that’s really important to Sassafras is that we look at all the communities that are available, and we make sure we’re doing outreach to all of them,” Cervino said. “That means partnering with the University where we can and also doing outreach to the local Loop Road area, where Sassafras is located.”
Sassafras partnered this year with Creative Campus by employing Connor Fox, a senior majoring in public relations, as an intern. Fox has a musical background as well as previous internship experience and hopes to combine the two while working with Sassafras, he said. He will focus on marketing events for Sassafras as well as contributing ideas to the organization.
“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed learning at Creative Campus is an interdisciplinary approach to creativity and using it as means to connect people,” Fox said. “My interest in Sassafras really grew from that spectrum of merging the arts and environmental themes.”
Cervino and Johns are looking forward to having Fox as an intern and believe his previous experiences will be a great asset to the organization and aid in incorporating the Tuscaloosa collegiate community, they said.
Events can be found on the Sassafras Center for Arts and Environment Facebook page or at sassafrascenter.org.