Carmella Kahn-Thornbrugh grew up in a rural area of the Navajo Reservation, with no paved roads and huge expanses of open land.

"We helped our family garden," she said. "We grew corn and squash every year. We had sheep. We had horses. We were never inside unless it was raining or time for bed. We were really healthy."

When she moved to Tucson to pursue her undergraduate degree, she realized how disconnected she felt from her native culture.

"In the beginning I felt so isolated, so alone," Kahn-Thornbrugh said. "I didn't know where to go for help. It's so hard to find native people in Tucson."

As she began to establish herself, Kahn-Thornbrugh observed that there really wasn't a way for Native Americans in Tucson to connect with each other.

She also noticed that poor nutrition among Native Americans was a growing concern.

As a graduate student at the UA College of Public Health, Kahn-Thornbrugh decided to start a youth gardening project. It was designed to teach Native American children how to grow their own food and participate in cultural activities.

The project, named G.R.O.W. N.A.T.I.V.E., which stands for Gardening Resources & Opportunities With Native American Teachings, Indigenous Values & Evaluation, was a success.

Kahn-Thornbrugh said the 21 youths who took part agreed gardening was important to their culture and they wanted to continue.

Sheila-Ann Patricio, 15, participated in the first youth project. She learned about eating healthy food and also had fun with the other youths.

"We got along. We talked and had fun, laughed, and just enjoyed being in that program," she said. "We had stuff to do after school. I don't want to be overweight and just be sitting at home."

Kahn-Thornbrugh, now as a doctoral student, wants to expand the gardening project to include families and also become a nonprofit organization.

"It builds kinship in the community," she said. "That feeling that you have your own clan in the community. And that's how it is back on the reservation - you feel so connected."

Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova helped start the project with Kahn-Thornbrugh and now is a board member for the program. She said she wants to promote healthy eating habits.

"We hope that people will become a lot more aware of where their food comes from and why it's important to understand why all these messages are out there about eating healthy," she said.

Kathryn Foster, who also serves on the board, said she likes how the project allows them to be in touch with the earth.

"I'm an outside person. I look at the sun, I watch the moon, I look up," she said. "People are inside, they're watching TV, they don't even know what's going on outside."

The program uses two beds at the Iron Horse Community Garden for demonstration projects. A company called Native Seeds/SEARCH provides the seeds.

The board also wants to establish more community gardens around Tucson, where people can meet and plant together.

"What we try to promote is just that connection," Foster said. "It doesn't matter if you're from a different tribe. We really just want to connect with people and build that partnership."

Kahn-Thornbrugh said it could take two or three years for the family project to be completed. She hopes they can recruit 60 families to participate.

"A lot of people say healthy food is expensive, so why not grow your own," she said. "It's a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it because there's just so many good things about gardening."

Rikki Mitchell is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com