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Rooted in love

Rooted in love

Dennis Sadowski May 01, 2024

In the Twin Towers neighborhood of Dayton, Mission of Mary Cooperative and its founding alumni cultivate community along with fresh produce to feed body and soul.

Two aging minivans, one white and one blue, pull into the Mission of Mary Cooperative property tucked into Silver Lane in Dayton’s Twin Towers neighborhood. They are full of plump tomatoes, colorful peppers and deep purple eggplants. The harvest is at its peak as the days shorten and autumn approaches.

2405_missionmary_incopy3.jpgWith the vehicles parked, Michael Schulz ’07 and a crew of staff and volunteers step out and begin unloading crates of vegetables collected from the cooperative’s network of four small urban farms scattered within a few blocks of the co-op’s headquarters.

Vehicles unloaded, Schulz, the cooperative’s executive director, heads to his office, leaving the others to clean, sort and prep the produce for sale and distribution.

The roots of Mission of Mary Cooperative started in 2007 when a community of new Flyer grads moved into a house not far from campus. These lay Marianists chose to serve their neighbors in Dayton’s Twin Towers neighborhood by addressing the safety issues posed by vacant land and the health issues aggravated by limited access to fresh produce. Their effort has grown into an educational urban farming operation. The nonprofit provides food to hundreds of households in Twin Towers and beyond, and it attracts current students, alumni and residents to work together to benefit the whole community.

This day’s harvest contributes to the more than 70,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables grown by Mission of Mary in 2023. It was enough to provide affordable, nutrient-dense food to many of the nearly 3,000 low- and moderate-income residents in Twin Towers, a community that lacks access to a full-service grocery store with nutritious food — even if some could afford it.

Soon Schulz will meet with Andy Badinghaus ’08, who is in his first day as farm manager. Schulz had taken on the manager’s responsibilities in addition to administrative tasks weeks earlier after the person in the position joined another venture.

“It’s been a challenge,” Schulz said of the double role he endured. “It’s a lot of work but also a labor of love.”

Michael and Beth Schulz moved into the Twin Towers neighborhood to follow a calling. Along the way, they found a home and community in which to raise their family.


Schulz is glad to have Badinghaus on board. Badinghaus knows the motivation driving the cooperative, having lived nearby, and kept in touch with Schulz and the staff for years. His experience in farm work helps, but he knows there’s so much more.

“It’s not just how we grow produce but also how do we build community with our neighbors and figuring out what else we are called to do as a result of these connections,” he said.

The summer’s harvest has been bountiful. Not only have the cooperative’s Twin Towers neighbors received fresh produce, but the organization has 100 members in its community-supported agriculture program who pay to receive a continuous supply of vegetables, greens and fruit throughout the spring and summer. The CSA provides much-needed revenue to the operation.

Along the way, Schulz and staff coordinate a backyard garden program involving 100 households, thanks to a planned gift of $424,000 received in 2021 from the estate of Theresa Steinbruegge ’83. It provides material free of charge for raised beds and teaches residents how to grow vegetables and herbs in an effort to boost access to healthy food. The residents have responded in appreciation by providing a good chunk of the 5,000-plus hours of volunteer service from which the cooperative benefits annually.

“It’s not just how we grow produce but also how do we build community with our neighbors and figuring out what else we are called to do as a result of these connections.”

Since Mission of Mary was incorporated in 2010, Schulz and a board of directors, including UD alumni and Marianist leaders have helped build the organization into a valuable neighborhood asset. By plugging into long-standing community organizations, churches, schools and social service agencies, the cooperative has cemented itself as an anchor in Twin Towers.

The work has been recognized beyond the neighborhood as well. During the 13th annual Montgomery County (Ohio) Food Summit in November, Schulz and Mission of Mary were honored as one of five community food champions for efforts to educate students and residents about nutrition and gardening.

The first 'yes'

For Schulz, overseeing a $400,000-a-year nonprofit was not what he envisioned when he graduated from UD with a degree in general studies and minors in human rights and religious studies.

What mattered most was a life rooted in prayer and being of service to others while living in community — components of the Marianist charism. Seventeen years later, he has all three. It just happens to be built around life-giving food.

The lay community formed throughout his senior year. Schulz joined Beth Habegger ’07, whom he later married, along with Rob Brodrick ’07 and Chris Nieport ’06 in prayer and long discussions to conceive their future.2405_missionmary_incopy10.jpg

“The whole idea was we’re going to try to build relationships intentionally, the way we experienced at UD,” Schulz recalled.

“Mary has this ‘yes’ attitude,” he continued, referencing the mother of Jesus, whose answer “yes” to what God asked of her is a model for vowed and lay Marianists. “How do we use our gifts, skills, resources to meet needs? That was our first ‘yes’ — like Mary, for sure.”

Brodrick said the discussions focused on vocation “in the broad sense of kind of where your gifts meet the world’s needs.” Brodrick — who enrolled at UD as a physics major, graduated with degrees also in math and German, and now is national director of the Marianist Lay Community of North America based in Cincinnati — is completing a long stint as chair of the co-op’s board of directors.

“Mary has this ‘yes’ attitude. How do we use our gifts, skills, resources to meet needs? That was our first ‘yes’ — like Mary, for sure.”

“By my junior year ... I wanted to do something that seemed more of a direct pursuit of a Christian vocation. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was looking for some sort of commitment to ongoing service and nonviolence and radical community and hospitality,” he said.

For Nieport, it was about being present to people in need. “We didn’t set out to start a farm or do anything else in particular,” he said. “We just wanted to be there. Jesus came to be with all of us, and we were going to do the same thing.”

But where?

Rural eastern Kentucky came to mind. Schulz, a Chicago native, had been part of UD’s Summer Appalachia Program and felt called to serve people living in deep poverty there. Other ideas were discussed as well.

Helping them navigate the process were Brother Ray Fitz, S.M. ’64, UD’s president emeritus, and Brother Tom Pieper, S.M. ’68, who has spent a quarter century building relationships in Appalachia and elsewhere. They offered practical and spiritual guidance as the discussions ensued.

Along the way, Fitz had an idea2405_missionmary_incopy5.jpg

Working through the University’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community, he had partnered with the Twin Towers neighborhood through East End Community Services, which offers services such as early childhood education, after-school and summer programs, English as a second language classes, job placement for adults, supportive services for senior citizens, and housing and economic development.

Jan Lepore-Jentleson ’71 is its longtime executive director. Fitz and Lepore-Jentleson have known each other for six decades. Both have collaborated on developing programs to meet neighborhood needs and identify community advantages.

Fitz knew that while Twin Towers, 2 miles from UD, had plenty of needs as it experienced a decades-long onslaught of economic challenges, it also had assets that community leaders were working to tap. He suggested the student group consider locating there.

The students thought they’d give it a try.2405_missionmary_incopy2.jpg“Our mindset from the get-go,” Beth Habegger Schulz said, “was just how can we use our gifts and talents to improve the neighborhood. How can we support folks of all walks of life?”

However, Twin Towers was a far cry from the bubble of campus life. Brodrick remembered learning about the community — “that corner was for prostitution, down here was for drugs” — when they moved in a few months after graduation.

Early years

Twin Towers, named for the iconic steeples of St. Mary Catholic Church on Xenia Avenue marking the northern boundary of the neighborhood, was at one time a thriving community with small shops and locally owned businesses. But the construction in the 1960s of U.S. Route 35, a high-speed, multi-lane highway just beyond Xenia Avenue, isolated the community from much of the city.

Those who could relocated from Twin Towers, leaving behind lower-income households and leading to a decline in the housing stock and a growing number of vacant properties.

The four UD grads moved into a house in the 300 block of Nassau Street. It overlooked an overgrown ravine trashed with abandoned vehicles, unsightly debris and a filled-in pool that had once been a community gathering place. Little did they realize at the time that the 1.5-acre ravine would become the future home of Mission of Mary Cooperative, complete with a farm, offices, a plant nursery, a gazebo and a warm meeting place for reflection and celebrations2405_missionmary_incopy4.jpg

The neighbors, Brodrick recalled, weren’t sure what to make of the newcomers. Were they a new generation of hippies or, worse, some kind of do-gooders?

Gradually, the foursome began to reach out, walking the neighborhood and greeting people. They sat on their porch playing music and strolled the neighborhood while singing traditional Appalachian songs to connect with folks, many of whom were from Appalachia.

Throughout the first three years they attended community gatherings, joined neighborhood organizations, introduced themselves to social service agencies and connected with churches. Unexpectedly, they took in a friendly black Labrador retriever/mixed-breed dog they found on a cold winter day and named her Heidi. She joined them on their walks.

“She was certainly a community builder,” Michael Schulz said. “People would ask what kind of dog she was, and we’d start talking.”

Each community member took on responsibility to support the household, pooling their incomes much like the early Christian communities described in Acts of the Apostles.

“They were searching for what would be a good way, and they were really animated by the Marianist charism,” Fitz said.

Beth Schulz, who hails from Elkhart, Indiana, is a music therapist; she worked for years in private practice and joined the UD faculty as a lecturer in the music department in fall 2023. She and Michael Schulz married in 2012 and have two children, Addy, 7, and Lukas, 5.

She utilized her musical skills to make connections in the community, especially with children through East End Community Services, where she continues to serve on the board. She also played for years in the praise band at New Hope Church, the nondenominational storefront church that many neighbors attend.

During those years, Brodrick was working on a master’s degree in theological studies at UD; Michael Schulz worked odd jobs, including teaching at the neighborhood elementary school, that allowed him to learn more about the neighborhood; Nieport had an engineering job with regular hours. He moved on after about five months to explore becoming a Marianist brother but his presence helped the community begin its venture.2405_missionmary_incopy6.jpg

Pieper said the Marianist charism the group followed helped them focus on the notion “everyone in the community is equal and has a part to play.” He credited them for staying on their path.

One of their most important steps was getting to know two unhoused men who lived in the overrun ravine. Sam and Cameron had been there for a while.

How long? No one was sure.

At first, it was a warm greeting. Then came an occasional invitation to sit around a campfire or join dinner in the backyard of the Nassau Street house. When the weather got cold, dinner relocated indoors. Eventually Sam and Cameron were invited to move into the house, providing them with a stable setting in which they were able to rebuild their lives.

Mission of Mary runs off the power of community, with residents, UD students and other volunteers doing the planting, tending, harvesting and preparing of vegetables and other foods that feed those living in the Twin Towers neighborhood and beyond.


The group also began growing food in the backyard beyond their own needs. Schulz had become certified in organic gardening and was eager to try his new skills. Before long, their thoughts turned toward clearing the adjacent ravine. They wondered: Could the land be a place to grow food and ultimately build deeper community with their neighbors?

They spent months removing debris and doing due diligence to claim the title to the abandoned property, setting the stage for the birth of Mission of Mary Cooperative.

Community asset

Leslie Sheward, president of the Twin Towers Neighborhood Association, credits Mission of Mary for helping build hope among residents. The cooperative regularly seeks out local input before embarking on any undertaking to grow food or address a community need, she said.

One of Mission of Mary’s farms is located on Lincoln Hill, the former site of an elementary school. Sheward, a lifelong neighborhood resident, described the property as once being “nasty and ugly.” That was before Mission of Mary worked with city officials, residents, East End Community Services and UD’s Hanley Sustainability Institute to start a farm in 2015.

Leslie Sheward is a lifelong resident of Twin Towers who is ensuring new residents are welcomed and well-fed.


“Mission of Mary has done very well gardening this,” Sheward said while sitting at a picnic table at the farm site. She recalled the backyard gardens residents had decades earlier and likened the cooperative’s backyard gardening program as a reminder of those days. “They have been a great asset to the community. They have always been respectful for what they do.”

Adjacent to the farm, Miami Valley Child Development Centers is building the Lincoln Hill Early Learning Center, which will accommodate up to 300 preschoolers, with a planned opening in early 2025. East End Community Services, UD, Mission of Mary and the neighborhood association see a tremendous opportunity to connect children with the natural environment, nutrition and gardening, Sheward said.

It’s another example of how Mission of Mary is spreading the good word through food.

Neighbors have joined the cooperative in growing food at Lincoln Hill. Ernestine Minani, a refugee from Burundi who has lived in Dayton for 12 years, is among the gardeners. She grows traditional Burundi vegetables and herbs in raised beds.

“Mission of Mary has done very well gardening this. They have been a great asset to the community. They have always been respectful for what they do.”

When Minani prepares a meal for her family she makes the short walk down the block from her home to the farm to harvest plump white eggplant and mineral-rich greens such as isogo, irengarenga and imisomasoma to create a taste of home.

“You cut it and cook and eat it, and it helps you with your health,” said Minani, who works with immigrants through Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Minani is among an influx of diverse immigrants who calls Twin Towers home. Census records from 2022 show that Twin Towers, with a population of 2,976, is one of Dayton’s most diverse neighborhoods. About 47% of residents are from a minority group, with 6.1% being foreign born. The average annual salary per household is $17,500.

“We have our own little Twin Towers melting pot going on,” Beth Schulz said.

Mission of Mary’s target population includes Appalachians, African Americans, African refugees, and immigrants from the Middle East and Latin America. Twenty languages are spoken at Dayton Public Schools’ Ruskin Elementary School, which serves kids in the neighborhood.

She added, “I love the way the different cultures build up their homes and take care of one another. Having diversity really adds a lot of color and culture to the neighborhood, which I appreciate.”

It’s also a poor neighborhood, with 53.3% of its residents, including 79% of children 5 and younger, living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. And 52% of residents receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, according to U.S. Census data.

2405_missionmary_incopy12.jpgMichael Schulz described the neighborhood as a “food swamp, whereby a majority of the food that is affordable and accessible is high-calorie, low-nutrient food.” 

“There is a need for building food resiliency in Twin Towers,” he explained, pointing to the residents’ lack of access to healthy produce and the ability and resources to grown their own food.

Such realities indicate the importance of the work of Mission of Mary in meeting the need for food and nutrition, Lepore-Jentleson said. The work is so important that her agency financially supports the backyard garden program.

“We love those guys,” she said, “and we’ll do anything to help them be successful, because if they’re successful, the neighborhood is successful, and that’s all that matters.”

Commitment continues

After 17 years, the lay Marianist community continues, but in a different, looser form. The Nassau Street lay Marianist community dispersed in 2015 but its members continue to espouse simple lifestyles rooted in faith and family and being present to their neighbors.

The Schulz family lives in a home on St. Paul Avenue where the backyard is across Silver Lane from the cooperative campus, allowing Addy and Lukas to help sort vegetables during harvest time. Brodrick continues his work on the co-op’s board. Nieport, an engineer developing water quality instruments, is married and has four young sons; his family lives in Dayton’s Belmont neighborhood, also on the city’s east side. He regularly visits the cooperative.

The community has extended as well. Danielle Joseph Weickert ’11 and David Weickert ’11 live three houses from the Schulzes. They also moved to the neighborhood with the idea of taking up a ministry of presence.

David Weickert had a stint as Mission of Mary’s farm co-manager before buying a composting business for $200. He grew a large customer base and later sold the company, allowing him to, he said, retire and be a homemaker and stay-at-home parent for the couple’s daughter, Lucy, 8. Danielle works as an online consultant for Microsoft.

Over time, David Weickert said, living in Twin Towers has become less of a ministry of presence and “more like a home.”

“This is our space, and we take care of it,” he said. “Now these people are our people.”

The cooperative also maintains close ties with UD. It hosts experiential learning classes and offers internships to students, and students work alongside graduates to provide community service. In addition, alumni serve on its board of directors, and Fitz and Pieper continue as mentors and advisers.

“This is our space, and we take care of it. Now these people are our people.”

Matty Spicer ’21 spent 11 months with Mission of Mary Cooperative through the Society of Mary’s Partners in Urban Leadership, Service and Education, a postgraduate service program. She found working alongside Twin Towers residents rewarding and helped her better understand the Marianist charism.

“It definitely increased my comfort with talking with people. Like when they’re passing you when you're working in the garden, interacting with community members is so important. You never know what connections are going to be made or who that person is or what they might need. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to or to be friendly to,” Spicer said.

Catherine Kinman ’22 leads a tour of the Mission of Mary Cooperative for UD students during her summer volunteer internship through UD’s ETHOS program.


As the 2024 growing season approaches, Michael Schulz and crew are carefully considering what to plant and how to broaden food distribution. Thoughts of how to deepen ties with their neighbors — that is, building community — are just as much in mind.

The Schulzes are striving to instill a sense of service in Addy and Lukas as well.

“Beth and I have been here for 17 years,” Michael Schulz said. “We’re rooted for sure, and we’ve come here to serve. So as we think about forming our children, helping them see the needs and be servant-leaders, it’s also the neighborhood, the environment, the people who form them.”

Call it vocation, call it missionary work, call it living out religious faith or call it love. What Mission of Mary Cooperative showcases is that a small group of visionary people can unite to inspire those around them to realize the power they have to begin building a healthy, caring community one house, one block, one neighborhood at a time.






Dennis Sadowski is a freelance writer in Avon, Ohio, whose career includes 25 years in Catholic media.

Photographs by Larry Burgess, Brigham Fisher, Elijah Knapp, Megan Kujawa, Shravanth Reddy Reddy ’24 and Sylvia Stahl ’18.

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