Jayhawks Give Back

Jayhawk helps communities grow through The Giving Grove
Tucked away in urban neighborhoods across the U.S. are little orchards making a big impact.

The Giving Grove, a Kansas City-based organization, supports programs across the country that work with local volunteers to plant and care for these free neighborhood food sources. And one Jayhawk alumna is fostering the organization’s growth. 


Ashley Williamson, g’17, co-executive director of The Giving Grove, had come across the little orchards in Kansas City several times before she realized they were part of an organization. “It was at my nephew’s preschool when I saw a group of people outside planting trees in their outdoor classroom,” she recalls. The volunteer group told her more about what a tree can do and what it could produce; she was amazed at the wide variety of fruit trees that could exist in the Kansas City area.


These little orchards can include fruit trees, like apples and cherries, nut trees and berry brambles, which have been well-researched for each region. “There were plants I never knew could grow in Kansas City,” said Williamson, “I was introduced to native species like pecans, pawpaw, persimmon and aronia berries.” Blackberries are a favorite to grow at schools because the brambles produce quickly and are easy to pick. “[the children] get really excited about showing their parents. The joy of picking something off a tree or bush and just eating it is a small pleasure that not everyone gets to experience.”


The Giving Grove’s mission is to provide healthy calories, strengthen communities and improve urban environments by providing the trees, supplies and training necessary to grow a fruitful orchard. The organization seeks out neighborhoods facing high rates of food insecurity.

As an avid gardener, Williamson was drawn to The Giving Grove not only for her agriculture interest, but the organization’s model for community-managed spaces. “Beyond being a perennial food source, the orchards are an educational resource for schools, and you see Giving Groves used by many therapists and rehabilitation Centers for mental health and well-being,” she said.


Williamson, who earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) with a specialization in social macro practice, started at The Giving Grove in 2021 as a chief replication officer and has been instrumental in bringing the organization’s model to communities across the country. Today, there are nearly 550 orchards across 15 different U.S. cities with potential to grow millions of servings of free, fresh food. Some affiliates include Denver Urban Gardens, Seed St. Louis and Grow North Texas.


Now, as a co-executive director alongside Erica Kratofil, Williamson is focused on the operations side of the organization and is continually growing the national network and building partnerships outside of the Kansas City area.


Williamson is proud of the relationships and collaboration between affiliates in the national network. “We wanted our national network to be a hub for sharing ideas, sharing best practices and sharing knowledge and expertise. So, when we stepped into these roles, that was something that we really focused on,” she said.

Williamson also shared that in her new leadership position, she always makes sure to bring her authentic self to all situations. “I couldn’t see myself in this role because I didn’t necessarily have the representation of myself in this role in other executive directors that I’ve met,” she expressed.

One way of showing off her authentic self? Wearing her best pair of overalls while speaking on a non-profit panel. “I thought about it before I presented,” she said, “and considered representations of all different kinds of leaders, whether that is me, as a queer woman of color in overalls, or others who have inspired me. You never know who is watching and who is thinking the same things that I used to think, ‘that no other leaders look like me.’ In whatever you do, your voice, style and experiences are important, let them shine.”


Jayhawks can help support Williamson’s work and The Giving Grove by raising awareness in your community, sharing your skills or volunteering in orchard spaces. To learn more, visit www.givinggrove.org.

Our Jayhawks Give Back program is presented in partnership with Andrew Wymore, Senior Realtor with ReeceNichols.


Jayhawks Give Back celebrates ’Hawks who are making a difference in ways big and small. Each quarter, we’ll feature a member of the KU family and their story. If you know a Jayhawk who should be featured in Jayhawks Give Back, let us know!

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