EAST COUNTY — Forget that she was a ambitious lawyer who went by “Aloe” and had dreams to be the best soccer mom — Allison Nelson wanted to leave an even more enduring legacy.
For Nelson, that inevitable thought of “What will I leave behind?” came early and suddenly.
At 28 years old, Nelson, two months before marrying her fiancé, David, received a diagnosis of stage four metastatic breast cancer; it meant she had just one year to live.
As her life spun in to an uncontrollable cycle of doctors’ appointments, chemotherapy and prognoses, Nelson became empowered by vegetables.
She learned eating organic food could prolong her life, and although it did not save it, Nelson hoped the outcome would be better for others.
“She wanted to give us a reason for everybody to remember her,” said Katie Rauch, a childhood friend.
Before Nelson, who grew up in Sarasota and attended Cardinal Mooney High School, died March 7, 2012, she started an organic farm on a portion of the Hall Family Ranch — her family’s livelihood in Arcadia.
Nelson and her parents, Kay and Lewis Hall, siblings Emily and Miles, and other friends and family learned to grow organic products such as spinach, red cabbage and kale next to roaming cattle.
They would create a business targeted at children with cancer called Aloe Organics — playing on the nickname Nelson’s husband gave her — and sell the produce to schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores, with some of the vegetables donated directly to people with cancer through the Center for Building Hope, in Lakewood Ranch.
And today, just like Nelson planned, the business — and legacy — lives on without her.
On Dec. 12, Kay Hall rode alone to the Center for Building Hope — an organization that offers support services to cancer patients, caregivers and family members — to donate boxes of vegetables.
“I promised I would continue it forward,” Hall said. “I never thought I would be a farmer, but here I am.”
That morning, which marked the first day of the growing season, people connected to cancer slowly entered a colorful room at the Center for Building Hope and filled green reusable Aloe Organics bags with vegetables.
Most have been patients at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, which refers people to the Center for Building Hope.
And most are repeat customers who remember Hall from the first time she came to the center in March.
There’s Hannah Ramos, a curly-haired 12-year-old in remission from leukemia.
There’s Sonny Johnston with the big blue sunglasses and a graying goatee, whose 12 years battling brain cancer have left him hard of hearing, but not of taste.
“He’s a survivor,” his wife, Teresa said, pointing to her husband carrying a box of pattypan squash, bok choy, spinach and radishes. “He needs this.”
Hall will bring the vegetables here every Thursday for the rest of growing season — until May.
Andrea Feldmar, program director at Center for Building Hope, says healthy eating represents a rare opportunity for people with cancer.
“Usually, the first thing you feel after being diagnosed with cancer is a feeling of being out of control,” Feldmar said. “But you can make educated decisions about what you eat.”
Kay Hall estimates 60% of Aloe Organics’ produce is sold commercially — to Sarasota restaurants such as Pamona and Simon’s and grocery stores Detweiler’s Farm Market and Morton’s Market — to keep the business functioning.
The rest is donated through the Center for Building Hope.
To maintain the farm on the ranch, Hall keeps four to six people on staff during growing season, including a full-time business manager and ranch manager and part-time labor.
Before Nelson died, the family contacted Worden Farm, organic growers in Punta Gorda, to learn a craft they knew nothing about.
“You don’t just start off being an organic farmer,” Hall said.
To begin, Aloe Organics had plenty of raw Florida land and some produce, which was donated by Worden Farm.
Aloe Organics became certified organic in May.
Doing so requires the business to grow produce free of pesticides. Organic seeds are more expensive and the plants require more attention and manpower.
Today, Aloe Organics grows organic produce on six acres of perfectly manicured farmland.
“Allison wanted something that would survive her,” Kay Hall said. “This isn’t about vegetables. It’s a community.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].