While Chiara D’Amore may have stopped attending high school in the 10th grade, she knew it was not the end of her education. Instead, it was the launching pad for her career and future professional pursuits – beginning with a decision to enroll at Howard Community College (HCC).
“This transition was one of the first ‘adult’ decisions I made in my life and opened up a sense of empowerment and excitement around my education that had previously been lacking,” said D’Amore, who graduated in 1999.
Soon after starting at HCC, she was accepted to the James W. Rouse Scholars honors program, which had a lasting effect on her educational outlook and goals. Faculty members “really got to know me personally, understand what my interests and passions were, and encourage me to bring my curiosity and best effort to my studies,” she said.
Through this experience, D’Amore said she was well prepared to succeed at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“The caliber of teaching at HCC was absolutely on par with what I experienced when I transferred to Chapel Hill,” she said. “My time at HCC ensured that when I arrived at a four-year college, I was an engaged and independent scholar that knew what she wanted to focus on, and how to make the most of the college experience.”
D’Amore went on to earn a doctorate in sustainability education from Prescott College. Today, she is the founder and executive director of the Community Ecology Institute, a Columbia-based nonprofit that grew out of the Columbia Families in Nature program she started in 2014. The Community Ecology Institute works to cultivate communities where people and nature thrive together.
Under D’Amore’s leadership, the organization purchased an organic farm in 2019 that has quickly became a hub for environmental education, gardening, and community service in Howard County. From students to adult volunteers to corporate partners, the Community Ecology Institute has engaged hundreds of local residents in environmental efforts. In its first year at what is now called Freetown Farm, 2,000 pounds of fresh produce were grown, with 550 pounds donated, plus more than 250 trees were planted, four beehives were installed, and a new farm market event was started.
D’Amore’s interest in the environment began as a child, but it became a serious passion during her time at HCC, where she co-founded the school’s Environmental Club with friend and fellow student, Joe Allen. Among their activities, the club helped the college implement a comprehensive recycling program. When Allen passed away soon after her graduation from HCC, the tragedy “further affirmed my commitment to continuing our shared passion for environmental activism,” D’Amore said.
The supportive and caring culture among her professors and peers at HCC had a lasting impact on D’Amore’s life, education, and work. The HCC experience was not only interesting and memorable, but also “pivotal and wonderful,” she said.
“HCC is where my general awareness turned into direct action and activism,” D’Amore said. “Getting more involved in community environmental work definitely solidified my path to focus on environmental science for my bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and career.”
Wherever you want to go, you can get there from here.