Nature and a New Beginning

The first thing you notice about Alex Smith is his smile. And it was nothing short of serendipity that connected Alex—and his smile—with us here at Nature Sacred. This is a story worth sharing.

One of our most deeply committed Firesouls, Todd Marcus of the Intersection of Change in Baltimore, was in need of some landscaping help for his Sacred Place. He came upon Division Street Landscaping and requested a visit for an estimate. 

When Alex Smith, the owner of Division Street Landscaping, was made aware of the inquiry, he considered the job because it was in his neighborhood, even though his typical projects are larger in scope. It was Todd’s work at the Intersection of Change that captured his attention—their work to enrich the lives of those dealing with poverty-related issues in the Sandtown-Winchester, Upton and surrounding communities. Alex scheduled the tour.

[Photographed above: Alex Smith, left, owner of Division Street Landscaping, with Todd Marcus, executive director of the Intersection of Change in Baltimore.]

A Sacred Place at the Intersection of Change, in Baltimore’s community of Sandtown-Winchester.

Upon arrival at the Sacred Place, Alex was quick to notice the distinctly-crafted Nature Sacred bench and exclaimed, “I built that bench!” This resonated with Todd, as he knows that all Nature Sacred benches are built inside
Western Correctional Institute as part of a bench-build program Nature Sacred established more than a decade ago. The aim of the program is to provide an opportunity for men incarcerated at WCI to take part in meaningful work that results in something of beauty, something they can be proud of having helped create.

The program quickly became popular at WCI.

After his chance meeting with Alex, Todd wasted no time reaching out to Erin Robertson here at Nature Sacred. A few days later, the Nature Sacred team headed to Baltimore to meet him.

Todd Marcus, Alex Smith and the Nature Sacred team at the Intersection of Change’s Choose Life Memorial Garden.

Alex shared that he was 18 when he was sentenced and entered WCI. At the time, few program options existed beyond General Education Development courses, which he didn’t need as he had graduated from high school. When he learned of the bench-build program, he applied and was accepted. But that wasn’t the full extent of his involvement with Nature Sacred.

After establishing the bench-build program, Nature Sacred was approached by WCI about creating a healing green space, a Sacred Place, inside the prison. We offered a grant to fund the project. Alex, who had never cut grass—though he possessed a keen affinity to nature, having grown up near river creeks—raised his hand to become part of the crew. He started reading books on landscaping. Ultimately, he was invited to participate in a visioning session, part of what we call a charrette process; one of the first steps toward conceptualizing what the space could offer its community. 

During this session, Alex remembered sitting alongside Nature Sacred’s Co-founder, Tom Stoner: “We all closed our eyes and dreamed of what was sacred to us.” Together, the crew envisioned a deeply meaningful, open nature space, rich with design elements that offer hope and solace, such as a sundial helping to mark time, a ‘Well of Unspoken Truths’ for expressing personal, private thoughts, and much more. Alex said that he still has the newspaper article written about the space he helped design nearly 15 years ago.

In the years since he left WCI, he started a business that continues to grow. Currently, he has about 5 employees, though it fluctuates with the jobs he’s on. Drawing from a combination of his horticulture and landscaping knowledge, and his lived experiences, he is helping others who struggle with barriers to workforce entry through his hiring practices. 

“I want jobs at Division Street to be a pathway to home ownership. There is no shortage of jobs for ex-offenders, but a shortage of those that can lead to home ownership. I want to help get them financial literacy, bank accounts, along with personal and professional plans.”
Alex Smith

We learned a lot from Alex and are honored to now call him a friend of ours. We’re grateful for his contributions to the Sacred Place at WCI and, moreover, for his profound work to build people up, while building green spaces in Baltimore.  

Photo credits: Maureen Porto