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Small things done well

Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with John and Sharon Javna, founders of ScienceWorks and The Food Projects.

Q: ScienceWorks and The Food Projects have been wonderful additions to Southern Oregon. Why have you invested so much of your time and resources to ensuring ScienceWorks and The Food Project are successful?

John: Well, it just seems like the right thing to do. We’re lucky to have the time and ability to help, so for us the question has been more how are we going to help rather than should we help. There are specific reasons we chose the projects we did, but if it weren’t those things, it would‘ve been something else. This is just what we want to do with our lives. What could be a better way to spend our time than helping people in our own community? We really believe that if everyone focused on the area where they live — if they thought locally — then we’d all be better off.

Q: What is the role of volunteers in operating ScienceWorks and The Food Project? How are those two endeavors able to get such active volunteers?

Sharon: When we started ScienceWorks there was still a feeling of disappointment that the Natural History Museum hadn’t worked out. Kids had broken open their piggy banks to get that museum going, and it was a huge disappointment to see it close. So when we asked for volunteers to help us with exhibits and administration for a new museum, there were a lot of people who wanted to help. People came out of the woodwork: exhibit builders, people who painted, people who coordinated volunteers, people who helped us find homes for the old exhibits. With the help of an advisory board and many volunteers, we slowly built it up, and now we have eight full-time positions. ScienceWorks has about 150 volunteers and they do everything. I think people are really interested in having a place that is about learning and community, and that is what ScienceWorks is.

John: I have a rule I live by: “A small thing done well is a big thing.” I know that if we do something well on a small scale, in a local setting, it can be an example, a model that other people can replicate. It can also inspire other people to get involved with things they care about. As far as getting volunteers goes, that’s a really simple thing, if you offer something that helps people fulfill what they need to do in the world. Everyone’s looking for a chance to make a difference, to help the community in a way that seems meaningful. But it can be really hard to do. Our commitments to family, friends, work, and so forth take most of our time and energy. So volunteer jobs have to be really accessible, and I think both ScienceWorks and the Food Project offer that in their own ways.

Q: What have you learned about the people of Southern Oregon in developing ScienceWorks and The Food Project?

John: I work with Food Projects in seven different communities in the county. One of the things I’ve learned is that even though we’re bound together geographically, there are real differences between the local cultures … and I’ve enjoyed learning how to recognize the priorities of the people who live in those cultures. Community means something different in each of these places. All are valid, and I think we’ve learned how to help provide a service to each in a way that makes sense to them, that they can interpret as a way to serve their community best.

Sharon: ScienceWorks is perceived by many as an Ashland institution, but ScienceWorks serves the whole region. We get school kids from nine counties, 25 school districts. We have visitors from all over the country and internationally, adding up to 62,000 visitors a year. And we draw funding from the whole state in the form of foundation grants. So we know that we are serving and being supported by a large population. I think that what I have learned about Southern Oregonians is that they really value education, and they want it for their children. They want to be involved with their kids' lives and in their learning. And they want to just be with their kids and interact with them in a fun and meaningful way. 

Q: A museum like ScienceWorks is unique for such a small area. Why do you think it has been successful?

Sharon: A lot of people have been to science museums. And they like them. They like the idea of hands-on interactivity, they like the family experience. People know what a science museum is. They’ve been to the Exploratorium, they have been to OMSI. So it’s a known commodity and a popular one. John and I had no experience creating a science museum when we started this, so it was a steep learning curve for us. We went around the country and visited about 50 museums. John focused on the exhibits and took thousands of photos. I focused on the administration and talked to executive directors, development people, educators, and asked questions.

John: And it is really a top-notch museum. Again, “a small thing done well is a big thing.” We have many people who come through ScienceWorks who think it’s as good as any museum they’ve been to. People may think that because it’s in a rural region, it has to be a “low-rent” kind of institution. But Sharon had a vision that we could have a first-class museum here, with no limitations just because of where we are. Of course, a lot of what made it work is the quality of people in the valley who were willing to work on this to a make it a great museum. There are some amazing folks here.

Q: John, you started with the Ashland Food Project, then expanded to the Medford Food Project. Where have you been and where do you see this going?

John: I think we’ve already changed the way food is shared in our community. The Food Project is the largest volunteer organization that’s ever existed in Jackson County. In October, we hit 2 million pounds of food that we’ve collected since we started — one bag at a time. That’s about 166,000 bags.

We like to say that Ashland was the inspiration for the Food Project, but Medford is the model. I spend most of my time these days working with the Medford Food Project to make the system sustainable and fully replicable.

And we’re chipping away at it. The Food Project is already in more than 50 places, as far away as Massachusetts and Florida. I don’t see any reason why, when we’ve finished developing the model here, that it can’t be rolled out nationally and become just as successful in thousands of towns around the country. So I guess I’d say that our goal at this point is to create a fully sustainable, fully replicable system.

One thing I’m really excited about is that we’re working with students in four Medford high schools to create a new group called the Student Hunger Strike Force. It’s a clearinghouse for student volunteer opportunities. Students, like the rest of us, want to do something meaningful but have limited time to volunteer. So we’re building a new kind of system that makes it easy for them to pitch in.

Q: What makes a community, and how do you develop community?

John: We’re social beings; we have to be connected to others. When we feel like we’re connected to other people, that we really matter to them, then we feel like we belong. Community is belonging, and that’s an essential part of being human.

The Food Project in Jackson County has more than 7,000 families involved. People experience the Food Project on whatever level they want. Many families participate in the Food Project as a family activity. It is a wonderful thing to know that we can have such a positive impact on people’s lives. It is an awesome privilege.

Sharon: At ScienceWorks, I’ve been struck by the way families and children from all over the valley interact. Different cultures come together at ScienceWorks, and that is kind of remarkable. There aren’t really a lot of other places where that happens.

Q: How do you think Southern Oregon can be a better place to live?

Sharon: Southern Oregon is already a wonderful place to live. The beauty of the area, the recreational opportunities, the cultural opportunities, I mean we find it just about the perfect place to be. But there is also a lot of poverty in Southern Oregon. The difficulties that low-income families have, just their basic needs and raising their kids. There is a lot to be accomplished here.

The mission of ScienceWorks to increase science, math, engineering and mathematics. STEM learning is very important to Southern Oregon. It has been shown that the biggest predictor of whether someone goes into a science or STEM-related field is whether they loved science in second grade. And I think the more resources we get to encourage that field, the more people are going to have good-paying jobs and family wages. Southern Oregon can become a mecca for small businesses, technology companies, research companies and the skills that will be needed in the next century.

John: We can accomplish miracles if we learn to work together better. We’re so grateful to people who have contributed to make these visions a reality. It is an honor and a blessing for us to see these ideas come to fruition. Community projects only work if people take ownership. So we really appreciate the fact that people have made these projects their own. It has made life so much richer for Sharon and me.

— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Sharon and John Javna are pictured at ScienceWorks in Ashland, which they co-founded in 2002. The couple also were instrumental in launching the Food Projects effort, which now has a national presence. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch