OAKLAND -- Eyebrows often get raised when Kelly Carlisle tells people she is a farmer in East Oakland. They tend to stand taller when they learn she is a Navy veteran.
But when people find out she has an invitation to one of the most exclusive food gatherings in the world -- Slow Food International's Terra Madre in Italy -- they're just impressed.
Officially, Carlisle will represent the Women's Farmer Veteran Network in Italy.
Unofficially, she will be representing the children who spend afternoons at Tassafaronga Park off 83rd Avenue tending beds of strawberries, okra, kale, basil, mint, squash and tomatoes.
The children are part of Acta Non Verba, a youth agriculture nonprofit Carlisle founded in 2010.
Growing up, Carlisle lived near Tassafaronga Park until her parents moved the family to Berkeley.
She served in the Navy between 2001 and 2005 and left the Navy Reserve in 2013, becoming one of California's 200,000 women veterans, a number second only to Texas in the nation.
The inspiration for Acta Non Verba began with headlines about the city's troubling rate of teen pregnancy, high-school dropouts and violence.
"They kept citing East Oakland as where these things were happening," she said.
Carlisle said she wanted to find a way for children to invest in themselves and have an adventure. She was also looking for something that would fulfill her after being laid off from a corporate job.
"I needed a mission to keep moving," she said.
They harvested the first crop in 2011.
Today, Emily Finkel, a production manager, oversees the garden and a team of teenage interns keeps the children busy.
"I want everybody to grab a trowel," Mikey Quintana, a 17-year-old intern from MetWest High School, told a trio of children standing over a planter box of soil.
He handed each a delicate nasturtium flower seedling to ease into the holes they had dug. The day before, they had planted delicately tendrilled Kentucky pole beans.
The children sell the crops raised on the quarter-acre plot that is bordered by a recreation center, one-story bungalows, apartments and a church.
They don't earn much yet -- last year they made $764 -- but the money goes into a savings account.
The program was free the first year. Now families pay $50 a week with a discount for siblings. This summer, Acta Non Verba received 115 applications. "We're absolutely full," Carlisle said.
Getting the neighbors to buy the produce has been a harder sell. Carlisle had more success with monthly subscriptions (subscribers pay a monthly fee for a box of Acta Non Verba produce) and a food stand, which she wants to make mobile.
She's also in talks with the Oakland Unified School District to sell at the farmers markets on school sites.
Acta Non Verba is the slogan of the Merchant Marine Academy and means "deeds not words."
And the organization has been the recipient of good deeds.
Waste Management EarthCare donated soil. Economy Lumber gave Carlisle a discount on the redwood for the garden beds, and the Ecology Center donated a wood-fired pizza oven. The greenhouses were made with materials provided by Soul Food Farm in Vacaville. And the Kassenhoff Growers nursery donated almost all the tomato seedlings.
Carlisle got the startup money she needed to buy a truck through a fellowship program run by the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, a national organization that supports aspiring agriculturalists who have served in the Armed Forces.
The coalition introduced her to the Women's Farmer Veteran Network, a critical step.
As a novice, Carlisle relies on the network of women for advice about everything from her business plan to marketing ideas and answers to questions about why the bees in the garden are buzzing outside the hive.
In October, nine of the women will travel as delegates to the Slow Food International Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, often described as the "Olympics of food." Two of the women are disabled veterans.
"They're great women with great vision," Carlisle said. Some of the women are combat veterans; others, like Carlisle, are not. But all of them, she said, have "found some measure of salvation through agriculture."
Their mission in Italy will be peace promotion through agriculture. They're still collecting donations to pay their way.
"People have found their humanity and the humanity of others through growing food," Carlisle said. "Farming brought them closer to their true self."
When she leaves for Italy, Carlisle will be carrying something from the children: an heirloom tomato variety called the Berkeley Tie Dye.