Instead of blowing whistles and running sprints, she's rolling wheelbarrows and digging plots for a new season of produce in Arizona.

By Susan B. Barnes
August 11, 2020
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Courtesy of Project Roots AZ

When professional sports teams started planning how best to start and restart their seasons amidst Covid-19, players' and coaches' health and well-being was and is a key concern. Even still, a level of uncertainty remains, and several athletes have opted out of their seasons. That includes Bridget Pettis, assistant coach of the WNBA's Chicago Sky.

Pettis began her professional basketball career in 1997 when she was selected by the Phoenix Mercury with the seventh overall pick in the WNBA Elite Draft. But this year, rather than hitting the hardwoods again, Pettis is focusing her attention on Project Roots AZ, the Phoenix-based nonprofit organization she founded after the 2019 WNBA season.

"We [Project Roots AZ] seek to provide and promote a healthier, natural, and more sustainable way of living in urban areas where there is a need," says Pettis. "This is the right decision for me and others as we move forward during the pandemic."

Through Project Roots AZ, Pettis and her team of volunteers are dedicated to educating the community about how to grow their own food, and share the importance of a healthy diet in regards to overall health.

Bridge talking to shoppers at Spaces of Opportunity Farmers Market
Courtesy of Project Roots AZ

To that end, the team plants and harvests produce at two community urban farms: on five plots at the the 17-acre Agave Farms in midtown, where the team has planted 100 stone fruit trees, and a half-acre plot at Spaces of Opportunity, a 10-acre incubator farm in South Phoenix. In addition to tending to their own crops at Spaces of Opportunity, Pettis and her team also volunteer to help other farmers with their crops that are part of the local community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

In addition to helping the community, Pettis finds that she and the volunteers reap the benefits, too.

"One thing for sure is that everybody is having their own experiences, and everybody's out there for different reasons," says Pettis. "Maybe they want to give back, maybe they want to connect more with the dirt. Whatever the reason they come out, everybody is experiencing something of their own.

"You're having your own experience and sharing it, and it's beautiful," she adds. "I encourage people to come and try it. Get back to what feels good for us. It's not being locked in and shut in and afraid; it's life inside of us, more real life inside of us. Nature has that to offer."

Bridget in her kitchen showing a cauliflower from their garden
Courtesy of Project Roots AZ

When it comes time to harvest, the fruits of their labor are available in a variety of ways, including at a local food bank; produce bags that can be delivered throughout the greater Phoenix area; Saturday mornings at the Uptown Farmers Market; and a mobile soup kitchen that Pettis and her family run out of their home.

"We're operating on a donation basis," Pettis explains. "[In addition to their own crops,] we buy produce from other farmers and organic growers and distribute to make sure food doesn't go to waste. At the farmers' market, donate if you can, and if you can't, go ahead and take what you need.

"It teaches people, you don't have to take all the food," she adds. "We're considering you, and you should consider others."

Though Project Roots AZ has not yet reached its one-year anniversary, Pettis has set her sights on expanding to help more communities, including Gary, Indiana, where her mother and sister have already planted gardens at their homes.

"That experience of knowing you are giving back somewhere else, that stays connected with the soul," Pettis says. "That's the level of humanity. When we do that, connect on the soul level, we realize, 'I'm doing something more than just my own thing.'"

She adds, "Nature feels more inspirational right now. I do have a feeling we should get back to our roots."

In addition to the Phoenix Mercury, Pettis has played and coached with the Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks and Dallas Wings prior to joining the Chicago Sky in 2019.